The Other Side of the Canvas

By Loanne Snavely & Elody Gyekis
Artists, PVCA members, and longtime Penns Valley residents.

“The word was out – the bergamot was in full bloom! We went as soon as we could, which was late evening, and arrived at our favorite spot up on top just as the sun was sinking below the horizon. The field glowed momentarily in the low sunlight, bathing our view in light that turns everything to gold! Just as suddenly it was cold and getting dark fast. We hurried down, vowing to come back soon.

We were rewarded with a lovely summer day and set off with canvases, paints, easels, water and lots of enthusiasm. The gator was piled high, and a blessing since we have not mastered the compact plein air painting kit we should be using. We’d been here before – when the Echinacea and Queen Anne’s Lace were blooming earlier in the spring, when things were golden and fragile later in the fall. It had a beauty we treasured whenever we visited. But this was our first painting expedition when the bergamot was blooming! We each chose a spot and set up as quickly as we could, time was precious, the views gorgeous and the sky full of amazing clouds, changing moment by moment.

Beginning a painting is always a challenge – what to include, where to begin and end. Paint starts flying onto the canvases, looking totally abstract and without an anchor. Look up at the landscape, capture something that is next, glance at the palette and mix a color, dab, dab, dab it on the canvas. Up and down, up and down. We joke that we look like chickens as our heads bob up and down. Time flies. We are totally absorbed. After awhile we get up to stretch, walk around, check out each others’ progress. This is the point where a painting seems hopeless. What a mess!

Soon we are back at it with new resolve and a fresh vision of both the view we are seeking to capture and what we’ve got on the canvas so far. There is nothing to do but to forge ahead and keep painting, regardless of how we think it is going. The near view, the spectacular meadow with layers of bergamot, and a few coneflowers still hanging around, the middle distance with fields and trees, and the far view of mountain ranges cascading down – a view both intimate and majestic all at once. 

Elody – Sunset Up Top
Loanne – Greens Up Top

Our perennial conversation about greens comes into play. There are so many greens in the summer landscape – from brilliant light lime – almost yellow, to deep dark almost-blue. You can buy green paints but they are never even close – it is easier to mix with yellows – light lemony, medium dirty, dark orange-y yellows, and blues – dark or light. Adding white when needed and a complementary color to tone them down. Natural greens are incredibly difficult to capture with paint, but the attempt is never ending during the summertime…

And then there is the sky. The light on the landscape changes gradually, but the sky changes frantically, clouds sweeping across our vision, morphing from shape to shape. How to begin to capture that??? At some point it has to be done in a fury of activity and a flurry of paint. Birds chirp, call, and flash – “Did you hear the goldfinch?” “Was that a Raven?” Insects buzz around the flowers and around us. Once in awhile one lands on our canvases and gets stuck! If you look closely, you may even see one there that didn’t get noticed before it dried into the paint. It is getting hot, the sun is intense. The cool breeze is a welcome delight and we move toward the shade.

A couple of hours pass in a frenzy of brushstrokes – hundreds and hundreds – each with a slightly different color of paint, applied again and again – hopefully in a way that captures the mood and feeling of the glorious day and superb view. Suddenly our time is almost up! We step back to take in what we’ve done and to look afresh at the view. Impressions, for sure. Impressionistic? Maybe not! But whether we captured the feel of the scene — maybe with a touch of realism, or maybe a bit fanciful – that’s our goal. A few last minute touches to try to remedy anything that jumps out as incomplete or not reading quite right. Take a quick photo. Then a frantic clean up of brushes, packing of bags, disassembly of portable easels and piling everything back into the gator – being careful of the canvases and the fresh paint. And a thrilling ride down hill and back to the car. A glorious morning!!