I seem to be surrounded by broken things, things that are incomplete. Mom died just over a month ago, not more than two weeks after her 90th birthday. Many cousins I hadn’t seen in a while came to her party. We all had a great time. I traveled from California to New Jersey to be there. About 6 months before her party she called me to ask if I would be coming to her party. I said, “I wouldn’t miss it.” She replied, “Good, I’ll hang on ’til then.” That type of response was typical for Mom. She had a way with words: gallows humor in a way.

After she died, Dave, my younger brother, and I cleared out her apartment. There were many items that triggered memories of my youth, and some things that I had never seen before: a letter from Mom to Dad that showed me a side of her that I had never seen. It was a glimpse of her life before Mike, my older brother, was born. Mike has never spoken. He is autistic and very low functioning. Mom thought that he willfully ignored her. The Zeitgeist also conspired against her. Mike was born in the midst of the era of the ‘refrigerator mother’ when the prevailing thought about autism was that the mother was responsible. Mom didn’t buy into this, but I can’t help thinking that it affected her on some level.

Dave has been shipping me some of Mom’s things in which I expressed an interest. Some of them have sentimental value and some do not. For example, my wife Joy and I bought Mom and Dad a tea set for one of their anniversaries. It is modernistic and playful, just the kind of thing that Mom liked. When it arrived in California, two tea cups were broken and the teapot and creamer were missing. Another item, which I wrapped very carefully and hand carried it home, was a delicate little clay horse. It was cartoon-like, a caricature of a horse in mid stride. I got it home in one piece but amidst the jostling of items I heard an unmistakable ‘ping’ of a narrow ceramic tube breaking. One of the outstretched legs of the horse broke off.

These broken and incomplete things seem to be a manifestation of my inner state. I have not consciously been grieving. I am very tired most of the time these days, but that could be part of the recovery process from my bout with the flu. Could that also be a sign of grief? Every now and then I feel like I should call Mom to tell her something, or see something on TV that I know she would like. Now and then I get a little weepy for no apparent reason. Perhaps something I see or hear triggers this in my unconscious and rises to consciousness in the form of sad emotions.

I understand that the grieving process is different for everyone. Some feel intense emotions of sadness, waves of sadness which takes breath away, from what I hear. I wonder if my grief will stay in my subconscious, peeking its head out in unexplained emotions or if it will come out in an obvious way that I will recognize.

Photograph: Broken Cup

Broken Cup
Digital Photo

Big Basin Fungi

I’m still working with some of the photos I took when I visited Great Basin State Park.  The first thing I noticed when we got into the park, aside from the enormous trees, was the lush greenery. There was so much moss, I couldn’t tell which direction was north. I grew up in the east where the common wisdom was that moss only grew on the north side of a tree.  With all that moisture, there was bound to be some fungi lurking.

Today’s watercolor experiment:

I photographed an amazing collection of fungi that was attached to a downed tree. Light falling on some of the attached pieces of fungus (I don’t know what to call them – they are not leaves or petals) shown through, giving a rosy translucent effect. The fungus in the shadows were devoid of color, but had concentric ringed patterns along their edges.

Here is my initial pencil drawing:

Watercolor Pen and Ink: Pencil Sketch Great Basin Fungi

Great Basin Fungi Sketch

I drew over the pencil lines with pen and ink and erased the underlying marks.

I started painting from light to dark – the conventional wisdom in watercolor painting – using Buff titanium, a Daniel Smith pigment. I then worked on the shady side of the log face with Van Dyke brown, leaving white space around the fungus edges. I was somewhat successful with this.

For my final flourish on the fungus, I used a combination of yellow and white gouache to accent the fungus edges.

The background was much less complex. I used a combination of Hooker’s green and cadmium red for the tree branches, Hooker’s green by itself for the leafy background and glazed with lemon yellow in the brighter sections of the background.

Here is the final watercolor sketch:

Watercolor Pen and Ink: Great Basin Fungi

Great Basin Fungi
9″x6″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

I am not terribly satisfied with this composition. I think there are several ways to approach this for a better outcome: 1) use bigger paper and take more time to sketch the patterns of the individual fungi as well as the overall pattern of organization of the fungus colony itself; 2) abstract the essence of the macro and micro patterns –  the lines formed by the colonies of fungus and the patterns of each fungus.

Perhaps this would help me obtain a mood in my painting similar to that exhibited in the photo below.

Photograph: Great Basin Fungi

Great Basin Fungi
Digital Photo


Big Basin Fern Collection

Today’s watercolor experiment:

Yesterday, after our visit to Big Basin State Park, I composed a watercolor of an interesting collection of fallen and half-fallen trees. The trails were damp and moss was everywhere. I would have taken dozens of photos, but I restrained myself. There was something about the transient observation that I enjoyed. It was different than pointing and clicking the camera to save the experience for later. I tried being lost in the experience in the moment, being immersed in the tree-space with my eyes wide open.

However there is a difference between being in the moment and being able to recall glimpses of it later on. This is where I need help. Ideally I would like to bring my sketch pad and make drawings of what I see in the moment. I am convinced that the eye-hand coordination necessary to reproduce a scene before one’s eyes, makes a person more mindful. Mindful of spatial dimensions and relative sizes. Doing (i.e., sketching) combined with seeing, is a perfect combination of skills for improving memory.

This being said, today’s watercolor, pen and ink composition was derived from one of my photographs.


The light diffusing through a collection of ferns hanging from a branch caught my eye. It was almost like an X-ray. The skeleton of some of the fronds showed through the reddish yellow of their drying greenery. Other, more lush fronds contained many shades of green, with the yellow of the sunlight illuminating the edges.

Watercolor Pen and Ink: Ferns in Big Basin State Park

Big Basin Ferns
9″x6″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

I drew the general shape with number 2 pencil, blocking out the shapes of the individual ferns. I traced them with pen and ink. Once again, I had to tackle the technical problem of highlighting the sunlit areas against a darker background. I squinted my eyes to see the shape of the darker areas and tried to paint their shapes in a combination of Van Dyke brown, quinacridone nickel and yellow ochre.  I may have overdone the dark outlines, but I am closer to the effect I want to portray.

I hope that practice will help me improve even more.

Great Basin

Sometimes it takes an out of towner to show you a classic site you’ve never seen even though it is in your own town. The kids came into town a day or so ago and they wanted to see the redwoods in Great Basin State Park. They grew up here, so they had visited the park many times. Somehow, I thought this was way north of San Jose, where we live. It turns out they are less than an hour away, in the Santa Cruz mountains. I have lived here for 7 years and have never been to that park.

Getting there was half the fun. The roads were so windy, I would have shut my eyes to avoid being car sick, except I was driving.  The first big trees I noticed were eucalyptus. They were really big. However, as we kept driving it seemed like we were shrinking. The sequoias were enormous. When we got to the park itself, we walked down some trails. There were a number of trees that had fallen. Some of those skeletal remains were big enough in which to set up residence – if it weren’t for the spiders, fungi and banana slugs. I could live with the moss, though. There was lots of moss.

I drew the picture below in ink after I set out the relationships between the tree trunks and other shapes in pencil. I sketched from one of the many photographs I took as I walked with the kids. I was frequently the last one on the trail, since I really wanted to take in the sights.

Here is my sketch:

Watercolor Pen and Ink: Redwood Trees at Great Basin State Park

Great Basin
6″x9″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

I would like to solve the problem of contrasting bright green leaves against a dark background. As the picture is framed above, delicate, bright green-leaved trees are in the foreground on the left and right. Perhaps a the foreground should have been a bit darker to contrast with the lighter background at the top center of the composition.

In general, I am happy with this study. It does give me a sense of what it was like to hike along the trail under these magnificent trees.

Graptosedum Succulent

Note to readers: Yesterday I got a comment from a new reader who questioned the relevance of my posts about painting on my blog where she was expecting to read about autism. She has a good point, which will prompt me to expand my blog header to include how autism in my life (my older brother Mike is autistic, low functioning and nonverbal) has influenced my creative process.  My early posts, from January 2013 through November 2013 were specifically about how autism affected me and the dynamics in my family. My later posts are mainly about creativity in the visual arts, although I do post on scientific enquiry as well (i.e., cybernetics).

I intended this blog to be a narrative about the influence of autism on a sibling (specifically, me) with the hope that other siblings in similar situations can work within their family dynamic and understand their own narrative arc.

My apologies to those expecting my latest posts to directly relate to autism. However, I direct those readers to my early posts, as mentioned above.

I will revise my header to avoid confusion.  Thank you for understanding.

Today’s watercolor experiment:

I’m working my way through sketching and painting the succulents I bought the other day. Today’s plant is called Graptosedum. It is also known as California Sunset.

Since this plant is still small, it is enveloped by the clay pot where it currently grows. I sketched it with light pencil marks and used an ink pen to define the edges of the leaves.

Graptosedum Stage 1

Graptosedum Ink Sketch

As in yesterday’s study, I used lemon yellow to paint the leaves.

Graptosedum Stage 2

Graptosedum Ink Sketch with Yellow

The leaves of this plant vary from a reddish color at the tips to green at their base. They are triangular and fleshy. In the next stage of this painting, I used rose madder, a shade of red, to color the leaf tips and a combination of Prussian and phthalo blues to make the green colors at the base.

Graptosedum Stage 3

Graptosedum with Red and Green Overlay

The final configuration of this watercolor sketch widens the scope of the picture and includes the soil in which the succulent is planted and the clay pot.

Watercolor Pen and Ink: Graptosedum Succulent

Graptosedum in Clay Pot
6″x9″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block



Kalanchoe Succulent

From Wikipedia: “Kalanchoe, also written Kalanchöe or Kalanchoë, is a genus of about 125 species of tropical, succulent flowering plants in the family Crassulaceae, mainly native to the Old World. Only one species of this genus originates from the Americas, 56 from southern & eastern Africa and 60 species in Madagascar.”

When I bought this plant, along with the others, I had no idea that it was Malagasian.* (I even had no idea that someone or something from Madagascar was ‘Malagasian’, until I hear a concert of music from Madagascar years ago.) The Wikipedia article also says that some species of Kalanchoe can grow to 20 feet in height. Perhaps one day, my Kalanchoe (whom I hereby name ‘Cloey’) will stand in the shade of Arthur, my pet avocado tree. My aspiration for Arthur is for him to grow to 60 feet.

Today’s watercolor experiment:

I cheated a bit today. I used a pencil to lightly sketch the boundaries of Cloey. I wanted the composition to be as centered as possible. After doing so, I used a .20 mm fine-tip ink pen to sketch the leaves and buds, and the petals of the one partially flowering flower.

I used lemon yellow as the first color, since I knew that overpainting with red would yield the orange color of the flower; overpainting with blue would give me the green of the leaves.

The unopened buds were more pink than orange, so I added a bit of white to the cadmium red to color them.

I used a Van Dyke brown for the dirt (it was actually potting soil formulated for succulents), overpainted with neutral gray. I used a couple of different blues to blend with the lemon yellow. Prussian blue gave me a duller green than did the phthalo blue. There were different shades of green present on the leaves, both dull and bright. Since I had just repotted this plant, the leaves were a bit dirty. I used quinacridone nickel to illustrate that.

Watercolor Pen and Ink: Kalanchoe Succulent in Pot

Kalanchoe Succulent
6″x9″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

As with my other succulent studies (Suffering Succulent, Another Succulent), I re-outlined the leaves and petals to bring out the details.

The sole orange flower stands out a lot more in real life than in my rendering. I will have to keep this in mind and correct for this in my next attempt.

* I don’t know this for certain, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


Another Succulent

Today’s watercolor experiment:

I felt really bad that I didn’t take care of my fuzzy, thick-leaved plant, the subject of one of my watercolor studies a day or so ago. Whilst doing errands therefore, I picked up a grove (?), orchard (?), gaggle (?) of new succulents. (Forgive, me but I do not know the proper collective plural for a small gathering of succulent plants.)

Today’s composition features Aeonium Species, the name proclaimed on the label of the plastic pot in which the plant resided.

It is a smallish plant. I believe I have seen mature plants of this type that have grown tall and stalky. Hopefully my new one will do the same. I should give it a name. After all, Arthur, my pet avocado tree that I grew from a seed has one.

Watercolor Pen and Ink: Succulent - Aeonium

6″x4″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

I like the symmetry of the petals. It is not as tight a form as say, a sunflower, but rather suggestive of a spiral pattern. Perhaps with more growth more spirality will be revealed.

The colors presented a challenge. The purple outer leaves (are they still petals?) remain purple along their entire length. However, the inner leaves begin as yellow-green in the region closest to the hub, and turn to purple further to the periphery. This was a hard transition for me to portray.

All in all, I like this composition. The ink lines helped to provide contrast among the leaves.


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