Natural Pigments, Day 4

Mt. Blanca

Got up this morning and knew I wanted to paint snow. Since it is NOT falling but rather it is MELTING, paint might be my best hope…

When I hike, I take photos and some of the photos are essentially sketches. Some artists think painting from photos is wrong, but I don’t think there’s any moral imperative about how someone paints. I usually take photos of places I love, most often places that are familiar to me, places I have actually SEEN. The camera helps me compose. I don’t draw much. I’m a painter and even when I “sketch” it’s going to be kind of painterly. I dunno’ why. My wonderful drawing teacher, Jean Schiff, noted one day, “You’re a painter.” From then on, in our drawing class, I drew with inch-wide brushes carrying wet black or white paint to the cardboard that had replaced my drawing tablet. It wasn’t perfect, but…

When I sketch, it’s with colored pencils — watercolor pencils — always with the thought of dragging water over the lines.

So, yesterday I took a photo of a view that was completely surprising. Sometimes the light and wind has the visual effect of bringing the mountains closer visually. That happened yesterday.

The colors I used today that are not part of the natural pigments set are cerulean blue, which I underpainted in the lower portion of the sky, zinc white to tint the blues, for the snow on the ground and light in the sky, and Gamblin’s Radiant White for the snow on Mt. Blanca. Everything else is from the set of natural pigments. The painting is small, 5″ x 7″.


Lately I’ve been thinking about how for much of my life I have been restless and in early years, plagued by wanderlust. My adult life has been one of yearning for love and pervasive dissatisfaction with where I was, what I was doing. I don’t feel these things now. I thought about it being the result of being 68 etc. but that isn’t it. It isn’t even the result of having traveled around a bit and living abroad in a pretty exotic locale during exotic times. It’s that I like it here. I don’t think I would always have liked it here — probably not — but after living through all of that dissatisfaction, yearning and wanderlust, I learned some things about who I am.

There’s also the fact that I’m now able to do the things I want to do. I remember cramming a weekend full of writing or painting. Of hiking as far as I could after work or (as my grandma would say) “Of a Sunday.” I think some of my youthful restlessness came from just working so much and having so many intense and hopeless family obligations.

I wanted OUT, but I couldn’t get out.

I’ve also thought about travel. I don’t have a lot of yearning in that regard, either. Have I been everywhere I want to go? No. But I can’t go to many of the places I want to go because it’s not “then” any more. I fell in love with the idea of adventure travel reading Richard Halliburton’s book Seven League Boots when I was a little girl. I imagined that I would do those things when I grew up, but when I grew up the world had turned. I couldn’t travel like him, or Beryl Markham, T. E. Lawrence, Richard Francis Burton or any of my heroes. It didn’t stop me from trying and I had a lot of fun, but my last adventure out into the world really sucked. I had a torn Achilles tendon that made the hikes I’d envisioned in Switzerland impossible. Iceland had it in for me. Never mind that air travel today is humiliating for any one with metal body parts and uncomfortable even for short people. Everything has been “monetized,” even choosing a seat.

So here I am. Stationary and fine with it, a situation I never imagined. Life has taught me that I want to see mountains every day maybe even all the time. I want to live where there is winter. I want dogs. I want to paint and write. I want to be as healthy as possible. I want good friends, and peaceful days without personal crises. I don’t know that that’s old age. It seems to me that those are worthy human goals.

But, still and probably always, I want to go back to Zürich. 😉

Natural Pigments, Day 3

Every tool has limited use. Today I tried painting an apple using only the natural pigments and it was a no go. The apple looked more like a tomato. The red — Pozzuoli Red — is too orange. My whole goal was to discover the powers of these colors then maybe add to them as I learned things. Today I ended up adding alizarin crimson, one of my favorite colors, and, also, a color used (sparingly) in medieval times. It’s truly one of the most beautiful colors I know. ❤

Dog Day

Daylight sends its away team over the Sangre de Cristos, and no one notices except Teddy and Bear.

“We need out, right? Don’t you think so, Bear? Now? We’d better go out NOW.”

“I think Martha is sleeping. It’s still dark.”

“Not very dark. It’s time to go out and pee and patrol the periphery. I’m sure it’s time. The squirrel will wake up any minute. What if we miss first light?”


“I dunno… I’ve never missed it.”

Daylight sends one or two slim, luminous fingers between the peaks of the Blanca Massif some forty miles away.


“Teddy,” sighs Bear. “She knows.”

“Awright,” comes a tired voice from behind the closed tiger oak door. Teddy cocks his head, waiting for the muffled sound of covers being kicked off the bed.

“She’s coming. OK Bear. Get ready. She’s going to let us out. C’mon.”

“Get ready for WHAT??? Who died and made you boss?”


Bear stretches. “Dusty died but he didn’t make you boss.”

“Who’s the boss?”

Bear shakes her whole giant dog breed body to wake up. The question is undeserving of further response.

Footsteps plop along the wooden floor in the dark. “C’mon guys.” Martha opens the wood back door, moves the dryer back to its spot in the laundry room (don’t ask), opens the storm door, leaves it open about a foot, turns on the water in the kitchen, and stumbles back to bed not to make a reappearance until dawn’s rosy fingers are sure of themselves and Apollo’s cart arrives in all its full glory.

Getting to Know the Red and Green Paints, Having Fun with Blue

I did another small painting with the natural pigments this morning. I changed from Gamblin fast dry white to Gamblin zinc white and the Ultramarine blue made from lapis lazuli loved that. It was as if they KNEW each other. Keeping them in the living room where it’s warm all night also helped. I like yesterday’s painting better, but this is “school” so to speak. The paintings are small. I am not master enough at this point to commit to a larger surface. The painting is a spot at the Rio Grande Wildlife Refuge. The blue on the ground is a fragment of the slough that comes off the Rio Grande. The scene is late August/early September.

My usual way to paint with oils — unless I’m painting snow — is to start with a black canvas or panel or one (if I’m doing a landscape) that I’ve painted with (most often) flat ultramarine synthetic blue and Indian yellow. The Indian yellow adds tremendous life and warmth to any colors that come over it and it is very transparent. The ultramarine — I dunno. It’s transparent — not as transparent as this real lapis ultramarine — but mainly because, for some reason, the color has personal importance to me. The idea is to paint heavier oil laden pigments over less oil laden pigments. For me there’s the opaque over transparent rule — it’s not a real rule. It just leads to what I want. In painting landscapes in oil I use a lot of paint. Other paintings are pretty “lean”. I’m not a great oil painter and I don’t have a lot of technique. I just know what I like to do. In the words of Old Lodge Skins, “Sometimes the magic works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

I did get the yellow ochre to “lighten up” this morning which is cool. I didn’t want to “cheat” (not that anyone cares) by using a non-dirt sourced yellow.

Here are these colors in a 13th century fresco in a church in Verona. The blue in these paintings is probably not ultramarine. It could be indigo or even carbon black thinned with lime which is “blue enough”. The church is Chiesa san Fermo. I spent a lot of time in this church looking at frescoes and trying to understand the pigments.

The school I was attending to learn Italian took us on a field trip to the Lessini mountains north of the city where there are limestone caves in which prehistoric people lived. Outside some of the entrances to the caves are hand prints made by the cave-dwellers. They ground the bright ochre that’s everywhere around up there. Wet the limestone, held their hand to the wall and blew ochre dust over their hand, leaving a print. The chemical process between the limestone and water merged the ochre with the limestone. Fresco Buono.

That was the most amazing place to me — I still think of it and see it clearly in my mind even though it’s been 16 years! The older paintings in Veneto used these very colors and I’m painting with them right now.

"We Really Need More Snow"

Around here in winter there are a lot of empty houses. One of my nearest neighbors heads south in October and returns in April. Back in October, when I hadn’t seen the kids for a while, then saw their mom she said, “When I didn’t see you for so long I figured you went to Texas or something.”

“Why in hell would I go to Texas?” (No offense, Texas.)

“Lots of people do.”

“Not me. I moved here for the cold.”

“I like it too,” she said.

There are two ways to like the bitter cold (it is bitterly cold). You can authentically LIKE it (I do) or you can say, “Well, I can’t go anywhere, anyway, ‘If winter comes can spring be far behind’,” and welcome the flood of seed catalogs into your mailbox, your living room, your life. It’s porn for people in the back of beyond who love to garden. Not my porn, but a lot of people’s. So many that it’s a good bet for Burpee to send these shiny, bright things out randomly to certain zip codes.

I’m lucky that I live in a frigid place where the sun shines most of the time. It’s like living in a shining crystal. The mountains on both sides are snow-covered, the Great Sand Dunes are white, animal tracks are easy to see in the snow. I dunno. Bear would rather just stay outside all the time. Teddy jumps and leaps in rapture in deep snow. Truly, the last place I would go now is a south sea island.

My mailman hands me more seed catalogs and tells me I’m a crazy lady.

* The featured photo is my neighbor and his little tractor plowing out the alley a year ago today when we got 12 inches of heavy snow. As for the sidewalk, I shoveled it. My neighbor ran across the street and we did the last 20 feet together because that’s how things work. It’s my next-door neighbor’s sidewalk. They were out of town, but not to Texas.

**Anyone who has more snow than they need, advise the weather gods that Monte Vista needs more. Thank you.

Experimenting with Natural Pigments

Last year for Christmas I bought myself a tube of real ultramarine blue made of lapis lazuli. This was the most beloved and rarest color of the Middle Ages and it’s so incredibly beautiful in medieval frescos, luminous and magical. I really wanted to try it. Fresco, Buon fresco, which is painted on wet plaster, is a perfect foil for the crystals of ultramarine blue. We know what oil does to paint if we’ve ever cleaned our kitchen walls. I knew it wasn’t going to look like this….

Real ultramarine on a fresco in the Baptistry of the Cathedral in Padova, painted by Giusto de Menabuoi

This past December I got an email from a company called “Natural Pigments.” For Christmas I invested in a set of oil paints made with the pigments — the real dirt, literally — used by medieval painters. They sat here on my table until this morning. Last night I dreamed about an old friend, a really good friend who was 100% supportive of me as a person, woman, artist, mind. In the dream I was showing him how beautiful the colors were when I drew with a rock I’d picked up hiking in a favorite place in Colorado Springs.

When I woke up I knew it was time to try the paints.

They are different. Modern synthetic paints have been made to be easy for artists to work with. Back in the day — until the 19th century, in fact — artists had to mix their own paints from raw pigments or chemicals. It was hard work and a lot of the chemicals are exceedingly poisonous. I imagine that for artists who lived on the shoulder of that change it was almost like going from library card catalogs to “Google” for anyone doing research today. The colors after the 19th century became more intense as the century wore on. That Van Gogh allegedly fell in love with colors makes perfect sense to me since he would have begun painting not only in comparatively dark Holland when he started out but also with different paints than he used later in Province.

So, I began by opening the tube of real Ultramarine blue. I was surprised at the color. Here’s how the two ultramarine blues compare. On top, Gamblin’s ultramarine blue (synthetic) and on the bottom Daniel Smith’s real ultramarine blue.

They’re very different

Its texture is different, too. It’s “rougher” and tints differently. I have to do more experiments with it, but today I painted sky.

The other colors are

I squeezed a bit of the colors I knew I would use onto my pallete — my palette is the top of a yogurt container. These paints are made with dirt and linseed oil. I love that so much. They were the colors I thought they would be out of the tube, but how would they be on a panel? I like best to paint on Ampersand Gessobords — basically masonite coated with gypsum plaster.

I had a photo that I thought (correctly) would naturally demand the colors I had without much mixing. I wanted to use the pure pigments as much as I could so I could get a sense of them.

I don’t, however, have the lead white that properly goes with these paints. I don’t want lead in my studio. I used a quick-drying white made by Gamblin because it’s not a very intrusive white, pretty neutral, and as these are linseed oil based paints, drying could take a while.

I went at it. It was different in the beginning because for landscapes I have a method and I couldn’t use it with these colors. I wasn’t going to mess them up by underpainting with synthetic paints and I didn’t know how these would be.

Messing around and underpainting

I wasn’t very hopeful seeing the blue which had sat in a box for more than a year in a room that for the past few months has been pretty cold. I don’t need to say a lot about what cold oil is like… But, I had a space heater in there with me and a thermal curtain pulled against the rest of the world.

I ended up loving every bit of this experience. I love the painting, too. That is not a testament to its quality, though. I love everything the moment I do it because the experience of doing it is so great. It’s a path along the Rio Grande in October.

5″x7″ in real life

I missed “real” yellow and actually needed it for this painting. The golden leaves of the cottonwood trees need that light that natural ochre, even this comparatively bright one, doesn’t have. Also, the green (real green from Veneto, from the mountains near Verona that I have seen on the ground) is very transparent but tinting it makes it heavy and weird. I couldn’t mix a green (I tried) with the ultramarine and the ochore. There’s also the fact that in October the wild asparagus is bright yellow and there is a lot of it growing at this spot. I expect to go back and work on the foreground a bit. Still, overall, this is a pretty successful painting, I think.

Hope in a Dog's World

Lots of poetry has been written on the subject of hope and I’ve posted my two favorites here — “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy, and “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson. Hope is that conundrum; we can’t live happily without hope but most of our disappointment is the result of having had hope.

Dogs are the masters of hope. They hope FERVENTLY (as Teddy is hoping for the dregs in my coffee cup just like Dusty T. Dog used to).

“Are you going to give me that cup? Are you? Are you? I sure hope so…”

His hope is well-tempered by pragmatism. He knows how long it usually takes me to drink my coffee. He might even be able to tell the temperature of the emptying cup. Dogs have keen senses. He also has a lot of faith in me.

“Thanks Martha.”

As for me, I’m hoping for more snow. I have no pragmatic background knowledge other than it’s ONLY the end of the first part of January and there are at least two more months left to winter and the odds are in my favor (compared to the odds in July, for example). I can’t sit at the feet of the weather gods looking adorable and guilting them into dropping some snow. All I can do is wait, be grateful for what I have (what dog sits around counting its blessings? I’m not sure they don’t; I’m not sure they do), and figure out how to put together this little rack I got for my natural pigment paints that need to be stored upside down.

Meanwhile, Teddy and I have had our coffee, Bear her rawhide cigarettes and they’re onto the next thing which is going outside and patrolling the periphery.

I’m going to go try my new paints.

Here Come da Judge

Unless you are approaching fossilization, you won’t get the title, but damn, it just popped into my mind as I started to write about what I’m doing.

I agreed to judge a writing contest. I’m not saying which one or what kind of books because a lot of the people who read my blog are writers. I’m judging three categories, none of which are fiction. I don’t think I could be an objective judge in that category. If you’re really curious you can do some research and find out.

This isn’t the first time I’ve judged writing. I was an editor for the Proceedings of the Journal of Association for Business Communications, The International Journal of Business Communication and the African Journal of Business Management and more stuff but I don’t remember it all.

This has turned out to be pretty interesting especially as I’ve entered my own books in some writing contests. I have never won — though Martin of Gfenn won some close calls. Knowing that anything I publish, in spite of everything, will have mistakes, I get it. The first thing a judge does is look through an entry to see if it’s something that could sit on a shelf at Barnes & Noble. Even if I don’t think that’s a 100% legit standard, the first requirement of any book is that it’s readable.

Some of the entrants clearly had money and spent it on getting their book professionally designed. That gives them an advantage it perhaps shouldn’t. Some of the entrants did no research at all into how to put a book together (or, perhaps, have never looked at a book?) and their book is just a giant PDF dump that’s almost impossible to read. Some entrants have no knowledge of the conventions of writing such as why we use paragraphs (in English, anyway. The Italians have no such silly fetish). Some writers don’t consider how a person might USE the information in their book, and while the information is good it would be hard for someone to get to it. There are dozens of ways books don’t “work.”

I’m finding that I’m biased toward an attractive book, and I kind of hate myself for that because I’m never going to be the self-published author who can pay big bucks to have a book designed and printed on expensive deckled edge paper. Some of the books are labors of love and that shines in the writing and appeals to me. Is that a bias? I have no problems seeing fine writing in a book I would never buy. I guess that comes from years and years and years of teaching people to write.

My favorite book so far, though, is not one on which someone spent a year’s salary on professional design and production. It’s an attractive, readable book that tells a sincere and important story.

That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Winter Gets Legit, and Bear and I are So Happy

Bear and I have waited a LOOONNNGGGG time for what we like most: being outside in the snow. Not that any snow has fallen for about a month but it doesn’t matter as long as the temperatures never go above freezing, and they haven’t. It doesn’t look like they will, either.

Teddy — with whom I’ve decided to share my birthday because he was 6 months old when I got him last June — and I took off on Tuesday to celebrate and evaluate the packed trails. They were (and still are) beautiful

The nordic club grooms trails for walkers and skiers ❤

I finally skied (Langlaufed) the groomed trails yesterday and today Bear and I took a long snow ramble. The snow is at least 8 inches deep — fluffy, light, crystalline old snow. Perfect beautiful soft sweet I love it so much. Skiing yesterday was great except the stupid snow baskets came off my poles and weren’t cool about me putting them back. I dunno…

Finally, Martha.
I know, Bear.”

So today out there in boots with my best snow pal, I was able to evaluate the entire groomed course that I didn’t ski yesterday (having had to go back twice to retrieve snow baskets, grrr…) and make plans for tomorrow. My poles and their cheesy baskets will get a stern talking to in the morning, because I must seize the day. ❤

Roald Amundsen had nothing on me.

“Won’t you try a little bit harder, couldn’t you try just a little bit more”