Lessons From House Party of Painters

The nicest notes came last week from a group of gals from North Carolina who came to Rancho La Zaca to visit and to paint. I had long wanted to organize a workshop here for my awesome Aunt Gray and her painting buddies. And by dern we finally got around to it. Had a wonderful time, but the point is this: If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, do it.

Acclaimed plein air painter Elizabeth Tolley was recommended to me by one of her peers and another wonderful painter and friend, Camille Dellar. I called Libby, as she’s known, and she was willing to sign on as our instructor for four days. Rather a leap on both our parts as we were total strangers.

Seize the Moment, by Elizabeth Tolley
A sample of Elizabeth Tolley's beautiful work, entitled ''Seize the Moment''

I’ve wanted to paint since I’ve been coming to this here valley, despite my limited skills. Here’s another point. If there is something you really want to do, even though you think it has no “value” except that it makes you happy –hey–that’s a good enough reason. It’s a song in your heart that needs to be sung. It’s something you’re here to do. Don’t argue.

I wish I’d learned that a long time ago.

His Grace kept asking me, “When do the biddies get here?” I said you better quit callin’ ’em biddies because Rockettes is more like it.

Does this look like a biddie to you?

HG stood corrected. And that was before she put on her yoga outfit.

Blair painting in the olive grove
Blair found a nice spot in the olive grove to paint the mountain across the road.
The mountain across the road
The mountain across the road. These are the San Rafael mountains, by the way, and they are harder than they look.
The mountain across the road, by Frances
I made a little study in watercolor. I leave plenty of room for improvement, as you can see.
Lunch in the olive grove
Lunch was also an important part of the day. We have outgrown the starving artist thing.

Painting in general and a workshop in particular were things I’d wanted to do but that were so entirely optional (or were they?) that they could have easily slipped away. I’m so glad they didn’t.

It set me to thinking about goals and dreams and what gets in the way of us doing them. Usually the answer is us.

Nancy by the pond painting the vineyard.
Nancy by the pond painting the vineyard.
Oak Savanna Vineyard
Oak Savanna Vineyard

Here is Nancy’s painting:

Oak Savanna Vineyard at Rancho La Zaca, by Nancy Spruill
Oak Savanna Vineyard at Rancho La Zaca, by Nancy Spruill

And Laura’s:

Oak Savanna Vineyard at Rancho La Zaca, by Laura
Oak Savanna Vineyard at Rancho La Zaca, by Laura Beasley

Blair’s work in progress:

Oak Savanna Vineyard at Rancho La Zaca, by Blair
Oak Savanna Vineyard at Rancho La Zaca, by Blair Peters

I think this is Nancy again. Nancy doesn’t mess around.

Oak Savanna Vineyard at Rancho La Zaca
Oak Savanna Vineyard at Rancho La Zaca

Me. (I mess around a lot)

Oak Savanna Vineyard at Rancho La Zaca, by Frances
Oak Savanna Vineyard at Rancho La Zaca, by Frances

Aunt Gray and I were the only ones working in watercolor, but I didn’t get a picture of the beautiful flowers she painted. Dang.

We also got refreshers on composition and the importance of working that out ahead of time in a sketch. Here’s a scene I like:

Oak Savanna Vineyard at Rancho La Zaca
Oak Savanna Vineyard at Rancho La Zaca

And here’s the sketch. There is a lesson here about biting off more than you can chew… Note to self…

Thumbnail sketch, vineyard and trees at Rancho La Zaca, by Frances
Thumbnail sketch, vineyard and trees at Rancho La Zaca, by Frances

I haven’t gotten around to painting this yet, but if I take my own advice, I will.


  1. Oh I loved reading about the workshop! And I certainly know for a fact they are NOT “Biddies!” And I also know they must have had a trip of a lifetime; how wonderful of you and HG to host them. I am so inspired to think of something I have always wanted to do and “do it, do it!” (Now that my dancing career seems to have come to an abrupt halt!) Of course, I have to get thru THE “Weddin” first! Love, Love!

  2. Oh, what a lovely post! i’ve discovered Plein Air as down on the Forgotten Coast in Fl. we have the Paint Out in May. And I came upon one of the artists in the gardens at the Biltmore and filmed him at work. You have such beautiful views Frances! keep us posted as you paint!

  3. What fun it is to read about your gathering of the girls (I agree with Duvall–the ones I know are not “biddies.”). Your photo of the San Raphael mountains looks like a painting. The vistas at your ranch remind me of an insight I had when visiting Wordsworth’s home in England. If I’d grown up in the Lake District with its divine views, I, too, might have been a poet. Indeed, you have us all thinking now . . . “What is my do-it-now something I’ve always wanted to do?” Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. My brother in law always says,”I’m not jealous of peoples’ possessions, just of their travels.” I think this qualifies as travels–and I am officially jealous! Y’all’s paintings were all stunning–after just 4 days? Imagine a whole week painting! Thanks for sharing–I was ALMOST transported!

  5. this is truly amazing…and to watch works in progress…I ony did that with mom who turned out beautiful things…items…landscapes…silhouttes…
    girl, you are an inspiration to all….lemonade on a deck with you …”an affair”…just love seeing your antics.,.travels…wisdom…keep sharing ideas and helping those of us who watch get closer to those that “do”…luan

  6. Wonderful story, wonderful photos, and fabulous paintings.
    A good reminder: “Don’t postpone joy!”
    Thank you

  7. love seeing art as a work in progress…amazing….
    you just keep those of us who watch inspired…and we can become “those that do”

    a WEDDING? do tell….so out of touch with duvall…but love the news…luann

  8. Wow! What a great gathering, so nice of you to put that together. Loved all the different interpretations of this inspiring countryside. Sometimes when I drive around I have my own little feeding frenzy…I gotta paint that’n that’n oh that! Promise to myself to embrace my inner biddie and go for it as often as desired ala DO IT! xo Pete

  9. what a dream time – your watercolors are wonderful!!! and LOVE the paintings – those are some talented “biddies” – love how everyone used purple in their shadows!!! your advise is key for this time in our lives!!! thanks for all your inspiration!!

  10. How wonderful Frances. It makes me happy that you made it all happen. Lots of love and talent there. Perhaps a new school in California Plein Air is born. Escuela de Rancho La Zaca.

  11. These are awesome! And a marvelous time was had by all! Absolutely agree with you, carpe diem! Okay, enough with the exclamations. Seriously though, those are some truly spectacular views, how I miss those mountains. Keep posting those paintings!

  12. I tried Plein Air this summer, but the heat got to me here in Savannah, GA. I am taking a watercolor workshop with Mary Whyte from Charleston this weekend at the Telfair/Jepson Museums in Savannah. I can’t wait to get my brushes wet! I know how you feel about painting with other “biddies”. My peeps are great girls, too.

    1. Gosh I am overwhelmed by the response to this post and so happy about it! Thank you all for taking the time to write and to share your experiences. I wish those of you who are painting would send us a picture of what you’ve done lately. We’d love it!

  13. Frances, LOVED your post, as usual!
    What special ladies to have gather! My
    sweet, adorable father used to take Water
    Color workshops with Gray and Boo. They
    had the BEST time! They sent him watercolor
    Get Well cards they did themselves. They
    were fabulous! Loved seeing everyone’s
    works of art! Definitely no biddies there! Amie,
    Margie, and I r having dinner with Blanche tomorrow night…can’t wait! XO

  14. Lovely post, Frances! And best wishes and love to you and HG at this very special time! So happy for you!!! xxx

  15. What an utterly lovely gathering of talented painters!! Everyone must be so happy to have had this opportunity and time with you! How do you manage to get all this done right before the wedding! xxoo

  16. So wonderful to see these images of women celebrating nature together. The soul rejoices at being in communion with the Creator. I had 4 North Carolinian women and a Texan and Laura from Colgne doing a workshop in Provence at the same time you all were out west. Next time you all should come to Provence. Loved reading the captions too.

    1. Miss Frances Schultz accepts with pleasure Miss Steenhuis’ kind invitation to Provence… Thank you, Jill! I have been thinking of you and am so enjoying your beautiful book. xox f

  17. Dang, Francis, that sketch is awfully fine. I have just found your website for the first time and am perusing.Trigg tells me you have recently remarried and that is wonderful news.Best to you and if you need another instructor for a painting workshop give me a holler…..

    1. Amy HEY!!!! so happy to hear from you and YES need another painting instructor! Oh gosh let’s be in touch after Christmas!!!

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