Packer Lake inspires Petaluma artist

Debra Moore
Staff Writer

In the morning she writes, in the afternoon she paints; and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Penny Popken wrote for the Marin Independent Journal for 18 years, penned a garden column for the San Francisco Examiner and contributed regularly to Sunset Magazine. She continues to write about wine, food and fine living for a variety of publications. Writing was her work.

But that changed a little in 2005 when her youngest daughters went off to college and she turned to a childhood hobby — painting.

Penny Popken and her family have been regular guests at Packer Lake for 30 years and have a standing reservation for the last week in June. Popken often lugs her easel to the lake’s edge and paints, but for this painting titled “Summer Getaway,” she worked from her own cabin’s porch. Many of Popken’s oil paintings feature vistas from Graeagle, Whitehawk and the Lakes Basin region. Meet the artist and view her work this Saturday at the Red House Art Gallery in Graeagle.

At first Popken tried to paint at least once a week, but now she finds that she paints almost daily.

“It’s relaxing; it’s similar to how people are when they are playing golf,” she said, explaining that the activity requires her to focus and forget about everything else.

Penny Popken painted “Lingering Snow” from the shores of Packer Lake. Popken prefers to paint outdoors and her annual pilgrimage to the lake provides the perfect opportunity. Popken, who is a journalist, began painting regularly six years ago. Her work is now featured in galleries and online. Courtesy Penny Popken

Popken’s studio is a refurbished hatchery in Petaluma that she shares with other artists. But as often as she visits the studio, Popken ventures outdoors to paint — en plein air, as it is called. On her website she writes, “It allows me to immerse myself in the scenery, and I’m fortunate to have so many wonderful locations in which to paint!”

Some of those locations are right here in Plumas County. Many of her paintings feature Graeagle, Whitehawk, the Sierra Buttes and Packer Lake.

Last week, Popken took some time away from her painting to talk about her work and her reception this Saturday at Red House Art in Graeagle.

“My husband and I began coming to Packer Lake 30 years ago,” Popken said, remembering that they were lucky to get a cabin that first year because there was a cancellation.

A few years later the young family had a standing reservation at Packer Lake for the last week in June. Desirous to spend even more time in the area, the couple purchased a townhome at Whitehawk in 2009.

When she’s at the lake, Popken carries her easel down to the shore and captures the picturesque Sierra Buttes and other scenes. One painting titled “Path to Packer” proved so popular that she painted similar canvasses.

Each of Popken’s works is an original oil painting. When asked if she ever considered making prints of her art, she says simply, “What I really want to do is paint,” and explains that while she has thought about prints or greeting cards, it would involve going in another direction, which would take time away from her painting.

Popken uses oils because they are slow to dry and she likes the way she is able to work with them. By contrast, she said, acrylics dry instantly, forcing the artist to paint over a work. Most importantly, Popken likes “the way the paint looks when it dries.”

Popken uses water-soluble oils that wash off with soap and water, a vast improvement she said over using turpentine as a cleaner.

Brian and Toni Carl, the owners of Red House Art Gallery, are impressed with Popken’s paintings and so decided to feature her work during their Second Saturday art reception June 9.

“She has a nice use of color,” Brian Carl said. “People responded really well to her work so we decided to do the show.”

Inspiration comes from a variety of places. “Snowed In” was based on a photo of Graeagle taken by local resident Mike Clawson that Penny Popken saw posted online. Courtesy Penny Popken

Popken, who has work displayed at a number of galleries, said Red House Art is impressive.

“It’s a world class gallery,” she said. “Their stuff is as good or better than any art gallery I have visited.”

The gallery began displaying Popken’s paintings last year and has added more for the show. Many of the paintings feature local scenery, but there are also other landscapes to choose from. Paintings come in various sizes and price ranges.

To get a preview of Popken’s art, visit

A visit to the site shows several paintings that have already sold, including two canvasses featuring Graeagle’s little red houses.

“When pieces have sold, I wonder where did it go?” she said, and then recalled fondly a young couple that bought one of her paintings as their first piece of art, because it had a tie to their grandparents.

Popken has sold paintings via the website and has also received inquiries about special commissions. Most recently she was asked to design wine labels.

Meet the artist and view her work this Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. at Red House Art Gallery behind the park in Graeagle.



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