With the Crystal Range of the Sierra Nevada before me, I set up to paint at Wright's Lake.

I can paint people, plants and things- even groups of people in conversation or groups of objects arranged in a still life. I have much more trouble painting space – from the corner of a room to the vastness of the Sierra Nevada. In fact, even photography has often failed me when it comes to the vastness of the Sierra Nevada – no single photo, or even series of photos pasted together into a panorama, can truely convey how impressively large those mountains are (how small we are).

My most interesting attempt at painting the mountains was rather abstract, and happened the first day - I wasn't able to match it for the rest of the trip.

Nevertheless, on my recent camping trip to Wright’s Lake in the Northern Sierra Nevada, I thought I could just sit at the lake for a couple hours each day and pop off some passable watercolors of the Crystal Range and their reflections. I’d be embarrassed by my audacity except for one thing. If I hadn’t had the audacity to think I might get some good ‘results’, I probably wouldn’t have had the experience of trying.

I don’t come to this lake in California’s Desolation Wilderness every summer, but have done so as often as I can for about 20 years. I’ve hiked through from one side of the wilderness to the other, where friends met us with a car, clean clothes, and fresh food. I’ve hiked in with fully loaded packs, proudly passing the guys with the stuck jeep on Barret’s jeep trail, and then circling back down a couple days later to the same trailhead, where we dumped our gear and jumped in the car seconds before the rain started. I’ve set up base camp at an unoffical camping spot on the border between the forest and the wilderness, at the car campground by the lake, and at the motel half an hour down the winding road to the nearest town. I’ve hiked those mountains in this year’s unprecedented heat, in swarms of mosquitos, when the surprise electric storms were unavoidable, when the wildflowers were in spectacular bloom of purple and gold. And yet, there were things I didn’t know until I sat down and tried to paint.

Since it was what I saw, at first I made the trees on the right larger even though I didn't understand why.

Some of those things were of course visual/spatial. I knew there were domed bolders that rose out of the lake in an echo of the mountain range on the other side. I probably could have told you that pine trees lined the lake and some of the ridges of the mountains. However, I couldn’t have told you, despite photographing it many times, that what I was conceving as one straight line of the far shore of the lake was actually two separate lines with a tiny offset in the middle where the lake went around a bend. As a result, the far side on the right was much closer than the far side on the left – and the trees, ah, the trees on the right were therefore much larger.

It’s been a mainstay line of mine that I don’t know what something looks like until I draw it. I’ve given this explanation many times in museums when bystanders wonder why I don’t just take a photo, and I used it recently in an essay on why I make art: seeing things gives me great pleasure, and I don’t fully see them until I draw them.

After I understood what I was looking at, I emphasized the bend in the lake.

This was a place I had looked at, drawn great pleasure from, any number of times. But it wasn’t until now that I gave myself the pleasure of properly seeing it by drawing.

I also learned that having a daily art practice has really changed me. It has made me able to enjoy my process and learn from it, instead of coming to a grinding halt from frustration when things aren’t working out. Even though I have a commitment to make something every day that I’m willing to post to the internet, I realized I could post a bad painting as an example of how things don’t always go well, or post a picture of the macrame ‘friendship’ bracelet I had started while waiting out the heat one afternoon. In other words, I didn’t give myself a hard time for how bad my paintings were, and even when not caring didn’t miraculously lead to better results, I continued to not care very much.

Instead, I continued to play, and I learned some things about painting with watercolors. My good friend and watercolorist Anne Longo had recommended Japanese brushes with wells for water in the body of the brush, so I tried those. Anne Watkins, another fabulous watercolorist, had recommended square brushes (I tend to prefer round) so I experimented with the unfamiliar.

It was great fun even though the paintings don't stand on their own.

I played with different amounts of wetness on the page when I put down color, blotting out backwashes, trying to mix the right color for granite. I re-learned that usually when I want something darker I also want it toned down with a little of the complementary color. This was especially true in the mountains where the only bright colors are tiny flowers and on these hot days even the sky was a very pale blue. I didn’t learn anything revolutionary or come to any conclusions about the new tools I tried – but now, having gained more experience with them and gotten some bad paintings out of the way, there’s a greater possibility of something interesting happening next time. Still, I’m not going to get too focused on the results.

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  • Julia Kay September 15, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    Thank you everyone for your thoughts and comments.

    @Sue- I think I’ve always found landscape the hardest for just this reason of scale. I’ve often painted people and animals mural-scale, ie larger than life, quite the opposite of drawing mountains, no matter what size paper you have. And even though the size of the mountains is ‘small’ when you are at a distance, when you see them live you perceive that they are far away and huge, but on a piece of paper, they’re just, well small. At least in my paintings, so far.

    @Alvaro – Thank you for this very poetic take on the process of seeing and drawing. It is interesting that sometimes we can close our eyes and ‘see’ something yet we can’t answer questions about the details of it. I don’t discuss it here, but of course what we ‘know’ can also get in the way of actually seeing. For instance we know both hands on most people are the same size so we have trouble seeing/drawing the one held out in front of the model as much larger than the one swung behind the plane of his body.

    @David- Thank you for continuing to push your students to learn how to see what they are looking at. We all benefit (artists and non-artists alike) from having more people around us paying attention!

    @Amira – Thank you for bringing forward the connection to all daily practices. I think we tend to forget the word ‘practice’ and behave as if these are ‘daily achievements’, whether it’s making a painting or emptying our mind. Thus we put pressure on ourselves to achieve, or, in the language of the Alexander Technique, to ‘end-gain’, rather than paying attention to the experience and the process and just being interested in what we are doing and what we might learn from it.

    OK, enough pontificating from me! Thanks again,

  • Amira Alvarez September 15, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    I so enjoyed this piece, Julia. It’s made me think about daily practice (whether for art or meditation or gratefulness or whatnot) and what that brings to life.

  • david friedheim September 14, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    I completely agree with you Julia. My Art History students grown when I ask them to draw in a museum. I tell them I am not interested in the quality of their drawings but that drawing forces one to really look. You can take a photograph without looking but you never really see something until you try to draw it.

  • alvaro September 13, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    Drawing is like re-making the universe with a pencil and colors. Every line, curve and space re-creates in our mind and on the paper the things we see and our mind understand. I love all the sketches, rathern than the photo, becouse the act of drawing make the things yours. Now it also exists inside you. Close your eyes and you will not have the picture, but all the lines and colors of it. Congratulations.

  • Sue Hodnett September 13, 2010 at 4:54 am

    Fascinating piece Julia – I quite agree that you haven’t seen until you’ve drawn. We spend so much time rushing from one place to another getting snap shots of views that we don’t really ‘look’ anymore.

    Having 2 eyes and seeing in 3D makes big panoramas so difficult to paint on small bits of paper. Perspective goes out of the window, things get chopped out, others get distorted in the attempt to get a ‘sense of place’.

    We all inevitably see things differently, which makes what we do so exciting and unique.