Best Mother’s Day Present: Napa

Looking for the perfect Mother’s Day gift, one that’s beautiful and relaxing and utterly unique? While a wine-tasting excursion and dinner in Napa Valley are good standbys, I’ve found something even better: give Mom a gift certificate for a plein air oil painting retreat in wine country.

Napa Valley is more than a place to taste excellent wine and enjoy famous California cuisine; it’s also sublimely beautiful, with roses alongside winding roads, Spanish moss dripping from sturdy white oaks, and red-tailed hawks soaring above charming towns and whispering ghost pines. After the vineyards, restaurants, and produce stands, and long after Mom has drunk her fair share of wine, she’ll still want to drink in the natural beauty of the valley. Alla Prima Studio offers a perfect complement to the revelry of tasting and touring: a private, tranquil, outdoor painting retreat.

Alla prima is a technique in which a painting is completed in one session, and plein air refers to works produced outdoors, rather than in a studio. Alla Prima Studio promises to rejuvenate participants by immersing them in the landscape and providing even beginners with the tools, techniques, and sense of confidence to let their creativity unfold easily.

Ready for some R&R after a winter of commuting in San Francisco, I decided to give plein air painting a try, and signed up for a two-day session. I’m not an artist. What was I getting myself into?

The first day focused on basics, and was perfect for people like me, with a little bit of student art in our background who want to enjoy painting without getting messy or shopping for paints, canvases, and supplies we might not use again. Owner Gretchen Kimball is the instructor: she grew up in Calistoga and has a deep love of Napa’s landscape. Gretchen also has a BFA from both the San Francisco Art Institute and School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, so she knows her stuff. And, having studied intensively at some of the top art academies in Europe and the U.S., Gretchen is well-versed in a variety of landscape painting techniques.

There were four other participants in my class. One had traveled all the way from Australia, and had been painting for many years; another worked just up the road at a local winery, and hadn’t painted anything since kindergarten. We met at a private vineyard in Napa Valley where Gretchen took care of absolutely every detail. She provided each participant with an apron and gloves, an easel, pre-stretched canvases in several sizes, a palette already loaded with rich oil colors, as many brushes as we could use, a jar of medium (a standard mixture of distilled turpentine, linseed oil, and damar varnish), and a miniature folding wooden table to hold our supplies. With all that equipment, I felt confident I could produce something.

First Gretchen had us look—really look—at our spectacular surroundings. We used tiny cardboard “windows” to focus on various specific areas and decide what composition we wanted to paint. I loved the visual rhythm of close-in rows of grape vines, but thought they might be too difficult for a beginner. The low mountains framing Napa Valley were my second favorite, and provided both lines and colors I could work with, so I chose a scene that included lots of hills.

We warmed up with a few very quick sketches, which allowed each “artist” to experiment with composition and make the sometimes difficult decisions about what to put in and what to leave out, whether or not to squinch the scene to fit another hill or valley into the composition, and how much foreground to include. That was the hard part.

Next we looked at the hues that would be in our composition, and learned how to mix little piles of the pigments we would need: in my case, a soft violet for the craggy ridgeline on the horizon, wheaty gold for faraway slopes, sage green for the undulating hills in the middle distance, and just a little bright green to evoke the rows of fresh-leaved vineyards immediately in front of us. Mixing the colors was fun and relaxing, and some of us got so caught up in the magic of Napa Valley’s summer color that we were reluctant to stop.

But Gretchen enticed us to take a break and nourish our creativity with a fresh picnic of delicious local produce: garlicy olives, thinly sliced meats, crunchy bread and creamy cheeses, topped off with huge, sweet strawberries, chewy brownies, and, of course, Napa Valley wines—a choice of red, white, and gorgeous rosé—served in Reidel crystal. One of the beauties of painting is that it increases your awareness of the lush panorama of color surrounding you every day. And one of the beauties of oil paints is that they wait quite patiently while you nibble on one last brownie.

The second half of the afternoon passed quickly, since we’d already done all the prep work. Gretchen provided instruction—both group and individual—and we each transformed our sketches and pigment piles into passable art. She timed the session so we were putting the finishing touches on our paintings during the “golden hour” of early evening, when the sun is just beginning to fade and suffuses the landscape with exquisite warm color. I squiggled an inspired tawny scrawl on one of my hills.

The second day we each started a new painting, and moved more quickly, since we knew, more or less, what we were doing. That provided time for us to appreciate the intense colors of two western bluebirds who watched us all afternoon, the rich red curves of madrones, and the rustle of oak trees in a warm breeze. It also provided time for instruction about composition, underpainting, light source, contrast, creating a sense of atmosphere, brush techniques, and more tips on color mixing. The improvement in our work from the first day to the second was remarkable.

Of course, it may have had something to do with the equally restorative night we spent at nearby Calistoga Ranch, an elegant retreat in the natural sanctuary of nearby Lommel Canyon. Beautifully appointed guest suites are nestled along a creek bed beneath old growth oaks and redwoods. The private outdoor living area—with ample seating, a fireplace, and spa tub—gave us plenty of time to absorb the valley’s landscapes, and a guided yoga session in the candlelit wine cave helped me relax into harmony with nature. The next morning, a visualization walk reconnected me with enchanting vistas.

The best part came several weeks later, when Gretchen shipped me the now-dry paintings, and I proudly hung them both as an ongoing reminder of Napa Valley’s extraordinary natural beauty. Gretchen’s hope is that the paintings act like touchstones, and her students will retain the ability to see light and color more deeply, and experience a shift in their day-to-day interpretations. “Maybe the next time you see brake lights on your commute, you’ll marvel at the vibrancy of the red,” she suggested. Maybe not. But I am hooked: the hills are sixteen shades of green, and I have never felt so relaxed.

Your mom will love it, too.

For more information:
Alla Prima Studio offers painting retreats from May through October, so you’ll have plenty of flexibility for scheduling Mom’s session. in addition to painting Napa Valley’s vineyards, there are special sessions focusing on rose and iris gardens, lavender fields, wineries, and even sessions in Mexico and France. Register online or call (415) 341-7030.
Calistoga Ranch is a 46-room luxury Auberge Resort nestled in a private canyon just outside Calistoga (580 Lommel Road). Amenities include a spa, fitness center, yoga deck, spring-fed mineral pools, heated outdoor swimming pool, and private restaurant. Call (707) 254-2800 for more information and reservations.
© Laurie McAndish King. Photos by Jim Shubin and Laurie McAndish King.