How does a naturalist-artist find herself painting Victorian dresses? I’m not sure, except that I found the fantastic fabrics and fine details of the new exhibit Well Dressed in Victorian Albany quite irresistible. The gowns in the collection of the Albany Institute of History & Art are so exquisite, they make perfect artistic subjects. Unfortunately, the museum didn’t allow watercolor in the gallery, so I was restricted to pencil and pen, and had to paint later…which took away a bit of the fun. Nevertheless, this was a valuable exercise. Painting drapery requires mastery of line, volume, form, and value. I went for a fairly graphic look, with bolder blacks for the darkest areas. Had I been able to paint initially, I probably would have skipped the bold lines in favor of more subtle watercolor.
Seasons unfold, pages evolve. That’s what happened here as I sketched a variety of fall fruits and seeds from the trees in our yard over the last few weeks. It’s all part of learning what’s here on the rural property we moved to in July. There are nice old sugar maples, red and white oaks, black walnuts, cottonwoods, birches, and white pines, with well-placed dogwood, pin cherry, and apple trees. There are many year’s worth of sketches in the trees alone…and you’ll see more in the future, I’m sure.
Tips & Techniques– Just as seasons evolve, your pages can too. While it can be nice to finish a page all at once, sometimes that just doesn’t work. Be patient. Do a little at a time, leave it, come back, and do more. Your most important decision is probably where to place the first object. Avoid the middle of the page, which tends to lead to a dull design and leaves only tight spaces around the center to fill. If you know you have a larger item (e.g., black walnuts vs. acorns), place it sooner than later. You can always find room for small things after the big ones are in place.
The bird lay dead in my hand, a small and precious jewel given to me by a friend. Fully intact and still dressed in glittering green, it was a rare gift. I’d never held a hummingbird; never studied one so closely. An opportunity like this meant one thing: break out the magnifying glass, ruler, and pencil and get to work.
As an artist, I find observing dead birds enormously helpful when trying to bring them to life on paper. I love the ability to look closely at various features, to study proportions, and to look at feather patterns and feet. A bird in hand lets you see details that a photo and even live birds cannot— like the iridescent feathers on a hummingbird’s throat that appear black unless reflecting light or the length of the primary feathers. As you can see, I didn’t try to enliven my first sketches— these are strictly studies. The birds on the right take flight thanks to the motionless birds on the left (click to view larger).
The Hummingbird Gallery
About Hummingbirds– Hummingbirds are pretty incredible creatures— they can fly forward, backward, and straight up and down, and buzz around at speeds up to 30 mph. Weighing in at just 3-4 grams, they never-the-less manage to fly more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico each year on their annual migrations from the US and Canada to Central America. There are more than 300 species in the world, twelve in the US, and only one, the ruby-throated hummingbird, in the eastern US. Journey North tracks its annual trek (as well as monarch butterflies and other creatures)…check out the journey.
I’ve had a paint brush in my hand every day for the last few weeks. It just hasn’t been the kind of brush I most prefer. Still, I can’t complain: my to-do list has grown considerably shorter and our house is much improved. But now that this round of projects is complete, I am eager to get back to a regular routine of journaling and adventures with watercolor.
Tips and Techniques– Do you struggle with finding subject matter for your sketchbook? There are lots of online sketch challenges that provide daily suggestions, and they may be a good option for you. My preference, however, is to pick subjects that relate directly to what I’m doing or what’s happening around me…even if it’s old paint brushes. When you choose subjects that relate to your day-to-day experiences, your journal will reflect more of your life and tell more of a story about what you see and what is important to you.
A small but vocal flock of Canada geese flies over our house every day now. They emerge from the tree line, calling to one another and, it seems, to anyone who will listen. I know better, but still, I hear them implore: look up! The maples will not be golden for long.
Tips & Techniques– Painting birds in flight is challenging—and it takes practice. It helps to study the anatomy of the wing so that you understand its major feather groups. It’s also important to have a general sense of perspective so that you can begin to see how the plane of each wing moves and how they align together. Even then, it’s not easy. In addition to time in the field, watch videos to study flight in slow motion. I made several pencil sketches and marked the angles between wings, head, and tail to try to get the proportion and position right before starting this page.
I’m excited to be offering a one-day workshop hosted by the Maine Audubon Society this winter. Though its months away, it’s filling fast.
The Naturalist’s Sketchbook: Sketching Nature in Pencil, Pen, and Paint
February 3, 2018, 10am-4pm; Snow date February 10
Maine Audubon Society, Gilsland Farm, Falmouth, Maine
Maine Audubon Members: $68, Nonmembers: $85
Get inspired to explore the rich diversity of life around you in pencil, pen, and paint. This 6-hour workshop will help you prepare to sketch outdoors, cover drawing and watercolor painting techniques, and explore ways to capture a sense of place on paper. Whether you are looking for renewed inspiration, seeking to nurture your creative spark, or hoping to build your artistic skills, The Naturalist Sketchbook will set you on a journey of discovery that is much more than just an illustrated record of what you see. Sketch after sketch, year after year, you’ll cultivate a sense of wonder and deepen your understanding and appreciation of the world around you. Some experience with drawing is helpful, but instruction will be tailored to various skill levels. Materials suggestions provided upon registration, please bring lunch.
Limit 12 students. Age 16 and up.