My big love of beans and how I came to paint them
February 10th, 2020…just a month before the world would shut down due to the pandemic- and not knowing the ironic foreshadowing to the amount of beans the whole world would be consuming soon- I set off to photograph some of my favorite beans with my friend & talented photographer, Ash. Ash is a bean lover (and also an incredible flower farmer), and she was happy to help me capture some of my favorite heirloom beans in some good natural light out at her farm one afternoon.
I remember first hearing about Rancho Gordo beans from my mom. My mom knows more on current food trends than most, and she was telling me how delicious these particular beans were. They are exceptional beans. I know you may think a bean couldn’t vary that much, but trust me that they can. I ordered my first few bags of beans from Rancho Gordo and was instantly mesmerized. It wasn’t only the flavor and perfect creamy texture of these beans, but it was the way they looked. I found myself in love with the colors and lines streaming across each bean. They were all works of art. And the names of the different varieties! Christmas lima beans, scarlet runner beans, cranberry beans. I imagined how gorgeous it would be to get to see these beans on a larger scale and bam- the idea to paint some big beans was there.
This is usually how it happens for me. I stumble across some edible or botanical delight that I see in a particularly magical light and bam! I am hit with the I-must-try-to-capture-this kind of revelation. This new personal inspiration is usually combined with some other source of knowledge around the subject that I find exciting as well. Heirloom beans are, by definition, bean varieties that have been passed down over a long period of time. They aren’t cultivated for mass farming production. They are more unique and harder to find, but well worth the effort and preservation, both for what they do for the earth and how they connect us with our land’s culinary history. Rancho Gordo is a company out of California run by Steve Sando that grows and sells all kinds of heirloom bean varieties, primarily with a focus on those indigenous to the lands of the Americas. Rancho Gordo has partnered with small farms in Mexico to help support the growth of some more rare types of beans, as well as bringing in certain varieties to be grown in California. They have a bean club where you get a new bean delivery every month! I was inspired on multiple levels- the beauty, the taste, and the story behind what feels like an important endeavor in land and food preservation.
COOL BEAN FACTS: Beans are SO beneficial for the soil, as well as for our bodies. Their little bacterial nodules absorb nitrogen from the soil and air, helping to fertilize not only themselves, but other plants in your garden as well. They are an excellent source of protein, and a much more affordable and sustainable way to fill our bellies then say meat or dairy. Plus, as I have mentioned, they are so delicious! Check out my mom Penny’s recipe for beans on toast in our shared newsletter, The Recipe Box.
PAINTING PROCESS: When I start a painting I generally try to work from both real life and a high resolution photograph. I like to collaborate with photographer friends (such as Ash), so that I can make sure I get a really great photo. The more detail and higher res the image has, the more my eyes can see and have to work with in capturing it in paint. This is one of my most important steps in my process. Without the clear visual information, my paintings would be some kind of abstract blurry representation. I generally get a large print of the photograph made and use a projector method of tracing down the outline of my subject, or I will grid my paper and work from a smaller image. With the bean painting, I got the image printed at a larger size and then used a lightbox for tracing the shapes of the beans on the page.
I always start an outline in pencil, and fill in with paint as I go. I work from left to right so that I can avoid smudging the negative space on my paper, and because my brain likes to work that way. Once the many layers of watercolor paint dry, I will go over the areas that have more depth and shadow with a bit of colored pencil. My favorite paper to use for these multi-media pieces is Legion hot press stonehenge (check out the special paper giveaway Legion and I have created at the very end of this post!)
Painting these beans felt like finding treasure. Little bursts of color and texture, reflecting light with a round, solid, rock-like presence. They really are edible gems! It felt also like my paintbrush was telling a story of the land, and getting to highlight these little secrets filled my heart with respect and awe for what mother nature creates for us. Making art of something is such a great way to really see it. It’s easy to miss the details and nuance of something that gets lost in your bowl with a hundred others, but when you paint or draw something, you get to know all of it. It’s one of my favorite parts of being an artist- the learning and the new sense of knowing once your painting is complete. It’s the process of falling in love, really.
Once I finished this painting, the pandemic was well on its way, and I was re-stocking my cabinets with more Rancho Gordo beans. I probably ate more beans in those first few months of covid than I had over the past several years. Also, some of my favorite food lovers, Samin and Hrishi, created a podcast all about cooking at home, and the very first episode gives a big shout out to beans! Check it out in the link below.
This painting has gone on to be one of my most sold prints, and one of my favorites to see hanging in peoples homes. Check out the set up below- beans also belong in the bedroom.
MORE BEAN RELATED CONTENT THAT I ENJOY:
You can purchase my Big Heirloom Bean print here.
Homecooking with Hrishi and Samin, episode 1
My beans showed up in the Greenhorns New Farmer’s Almanac alongside this beautifully written piece- We are Excited About Beans by my friend Jessica Manly of the Young Farmers Coalition.
I am currently reading Braiding Sweetgrass and am so in love I don’t want it to ever end! Kimmerer talks so beautifully of building a three sisters garden (which includes beans), and the power, beauty and history of this plant trio. It’s inspired me to start my own this coming summer.
How to grow beans- if you can start a garden, please do. Kimmerer talks about one of the best ways we can curb climate change and heal the earth is by simply getting our hands dirty and growing something. Anything! Beans are a very easy one to start with, and so good for building up soil health.