• Otter Views: Stippling Big Red Flowers

    McShane’s Nursery in Salinas hosted a painting session Saturday afternoon for which no experience was necessary. That qualified me eminently, so I joined 15 other would-be artists in a long, narrow, open-beamed classroom.

    Set beside the nursery’s wildly blooming display floor, the classroom itself summoned one’s inner Matisse. Walls paneled in re-purposed vintage lumber suggested some rustic country atelier. Afternoon sun beamed through skylights and clerestory windows, creating a playful dance of motes, brightness and shadows.

    I felt artistic just sitting there.

    Tabletop easels helped foster this impression. So did several finished paintings that had been placed around the room for inspiration. Portraits of soulful-looking dogs alternated with scenes of serape-clad villagers lounging in sunlit doorways in old Mexico.

    Boldly colored, vivid, inviting and expressive, the paintings seemed to say: “Yes, you too can do this!”

    Then the actual class began. Our vivacious instructor Corali Ramirez, who had painted the bright pictures around us, circled the room passing out brushes and setting canvases atop the 16 easels. Cups of water came next, followed by paper plate “palettes” dotted with glistening blobs of violet, crimson and scarlet.

    These would be our first three colors, Ramirez explained, setting atop a display easel that afternoon’s project. Sixteen heads swiveled toward a richly colored, sharply detailed painting of a monarch butterfly resting on the petals of a violet, crimson and scarlet flower. The picture was majestic, beautifully composed and quite intimidating.

    As a flutter of anticipatory excitement went around the room, my inner Matisse thought: “Fahgetabouddit!” Or however you say that in French. But Ramirez left little time for dismay or artistic self- doubt. Within moments, we had taken up our broadest brushes, wetted them in the water cups, and dipped them into our scarlet blobs.

    “First outline the petals of your flowers,” she instructed, gesturing at the model canvas. “Then choose which petals you want in the foreground, and which ones will go behind. Use your violet color for the petals that will catch the most light; crimson for the others. We’ll pull in the darkest red later.”

    In addition to the model picture, we novices had another crutch as well. Ramirez said she and her husband had stayed up late the previous night penciling onto the 16 canvases butterfly outlines and flower centers as reference points. These were meant to be identical, but as the hour grew later, the silhouettes became less uniform. This would lend individuality to our work.

    In my case, individuality proved to be no problem. In thrall to the siren song of the lustrous violet, I started off by painting all my petals violet, leaving none for the burgundy background. We had been advised not to compare with our neighbors, but a stroll around the studio confirmed that the other flowers all had more than one color. Returning to my easel, I lashed on belated streaks of crimson and scarlet.

    I did better with the stippling. Each flower had at its center a pair of concentric circles spaced somewhat like the iris and pupil of an eye. The outer circle would be a fairly straightforward band of yellow. But to do the inner circle, we were told to load our pointy little brushes with two blobs of color at once – the white and the ochre.

    “You’ll be stippling your inner circles like this,” Ramirez demonstrated, her darting brush peppering the display canvas with hundreds of tiny, bi-colored dots. Being rather slipshod about brush cleaning on various household jobs over the years, I had applied two colors to the same surface at the same time, but always accidentally. This was intentional!

    I felt a proud surge of joy, like the first time I rode a bicycle and stayed upright. “I’m stippling! I’m stippling!” I thought. I wanted to announce this out loud, but of course, the others were all stippling too.

    Alas, the stippling was soon complete. Then it was time to apply black, white, orange and brown to the densely patterned, intricately variegated and precisely dotted butterfly wings. Have you ever intently studied a monarch wing? Neither had I. But I can now state with some assurance that painting one is no picnic. Just keeping the four colors separate and making the white dots exact was crazy-making. I suddenly understood about Van Gogh.

    Three hours had by now elapsed, and long, sighing silences supplanted our earlier jocularity. Necks and backs began to ache as we bent over the punishing intricacies of the wing. Chairs scraped as painters stood up to stretch, pace and groan. I thought about how strong and stubborn real painters must be.

    At last we posed with our completed canvases. Cameras blinked, we said goodbye, and now we pay much closer attention to monarch butterfly signage.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on April 24, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views

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