All of my work originates in some way from my love of, and connection to, nature. Though I adore travel and paint everywhere I go, much of what I paint is right in my own neighborhood in Silicon Valley, California. If you’re a casual observer in Silicon Valley, you might wonder how mile after mile of industrial parks can inspire an artist, but if you slow down and get off the freeways, you’ll notice many corners of visual delight all around.
Cycle eastward through Googleville in Mountain View, for example, and once you are clear of all the buildings, you’re at the edge of San Francisco Bay. There are parks and nature refuges all along the Bay, full of lovely, watery vistas, and laced with hiking and biking trails. Serpentine waterways surround low-lying tussocks that teem with dozens of species of birds. There is a little lake where people sail small boats and kids come for swimming and boating camps every summer.
Or venture the other direction. Go west through Stanford University’s campus (itself full of alluring scenes to paint), and you are in a vast expanse of oak-studded hills, brilliant green in winter, golden in summer. Continue on over the mountains and you’ll reach fabled Highway One, one of the great scenic roads of the world. Just a few minutes from my door are miles of pristine beaches and quirky coastal towns. And just a short distance south is the Big Sur coast, storied with history and breathtakingly vast and beautiful, not to mention the Monterey-Carmel area, home to John Steinbeck’s “Doc” Ricketts and other colorful Cannery Row characters.
All invite the artist’s eye.
I am most drawn to drama and color, so that’s what I look for in my subject matter. One of my favorite sites is a beach that is walled with high cliffs. I paint there a lot because I love to climb to the top and look out over the vast views. You can see miles out to sea and watch breakers come crashing in to shore, layer upon layer. Or sometimes I go right down close to the water’s edge, sit on the sand, and look up at those same cliffs. They are huge and overwhelming, and when I paint from there, I like to see if I can make them look just a little bit scary! I usually include human and animal figures in these scenes to emphasize scale.
Sometimes what interests me is weather. I don’t necessarily stay inside if it rains. Stormy scenes can create lots of drama and, if not color as we usually think of it, extremes of color value, which can be very exciting.
Much of my work is en plein air, or at least begun outdoors. I carry a backpack in place of a purse, and it contains, in addition to my cell phone, wallet and hairbrush, tiny sketchbooks, little post-card pads of watercolor paper, and a small plein air paint kit. If I am out and around and in a nice place with a couple of hours unfilled with urgent business, I get out my kit and paint! I do lots of studies and value drawings of my scenes in small-format, quick paintings, or drawings in my sketchbooks. I also put photos in my phone. Sometimes I finish a larger painting on site, but more often I take back all that stuff to my studio and make my final paintings.
I spend quite a lot of time planning a painting before I put the first brush stroke down. This probably comes from my long experience as a graphic designer. Design is everything in a good piece of communication (well, actually, first comes a good concept, then design). Every piece I do, whether it’s a graphic project or a fine-art piece, starts with design. That doesn’t mean that once I begin my work things don’t pop up that I haven’t anticipated. They do. But then I stop, do the same kind of analysis, and with the experience I now have, I can come up with solutions.
For a while in high school, I had the crazy notion that I wanted to be a scientist (yes, that was crazy in the days before the feminist movement opened up so much possibility for girls and women). That went away, but I believe both my design work and my fine art work are deeply informed by my earlier interest in science and math. We seem intuitively to think that art and science are diametrical opposites, but I am deeply aware, when I am planning a painting, that I’m analyzing everything I am seeing, and I’m solving problems in a mathematical, scientific way. For instance, determining size relationships, shapes, angles, and perspective is really thinking in geometry; color and light relationships are aspects of physics; and working out which paints to use can be strongly influenced by chemistry. You don’t really need that kind of knowledge to paint, of course, but I have some and I use it.
The interplay of art and analysis in the planning of a painting is exciting, but in the end, it all simply blends, and then what comes out of my brush on to my paper is really than the outward representation of the beauty and power of nature stirring a soul.