In the Clouds

Sometimes being an artist isn’t fun or enlightening or satisfying. It’s just hard work. It’s hard to figure out how to capture a scene or idea on paper; hard to get paint to do what you want, what you see, what you want to convey. Sometimes being an artist is fraught with doubt and anguish. That’s the kind of week I’ve had. I have a big painting assignment that requires big skies and working at a much larger size than I typically do. Scaling up has been a challenge—one which will no doubt prove worthwhile in the end, but which feels overwhelming in the moment. My head is full of clouds…and I’m only beginning to see a glimmer of blue sky emerging.

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Do Good Things

Inspired by fragments of glass and broken ceramics pieced together on a street corner in Philadelphia, I painted this page, along with the words written next to the original mosaic. All those colors, all those tiny broken fragments taken together create something bold and beautiful and compelling— what a great metaphor for life. 

Spring Unfolding

When the world has been brown for months, the first emergence of green is a wonderful thing. Skunk cabbage has been unfurling for several weeks now and is a most welcome sight along woodland streams and wetlands. In late winter, it sends up a maroon-striped spadix, which encloses its unpleasant smelling flower, and then in early spring it unrolls bright green leaves. I recently spent a pleasant afternoon sketching on the edge of a wooded steam, enjoying dappled sun and birdsong, and feeling grateful for this one beautiful color.

Tips & Techniques– Deciding what to sketch is sometimes harder than actually sketching. Likewise, figuring out what you want your page to look once you’ve chosen a subject may seem daunting. Here are a couple of ways to get past the blank white page:

  • Option 1: Start with a couple of quick thumbnail sketches. These will help you figure out whether you like your subject enough to devote time to it and whether you think you can tackle it in the time you have. Thumbnails will also help you consider different approaches to page layout. They can help you map out where the lights, mid-tones, and darks are too, which will give you a road map for the full page version.
  • Option 2: Just begin! Rather than thinking you have to figure out everything before you start, consider that your sketching journey can begin with a single step. Make a mark. Make another. Keep looking, keep going until you feel satisfied with the page.
  • Option 3: Be thoughtful. Consider what drew you to sketch this particular subject. Think about it for a minute- was it the color? The light? The scene or object? The story? Your experience? When you have an answer, you’ll have a better idea of what to emphasize and how you want to approach the page.

Arts & Birding 2017

If you love sketching or photographing birds and nature, want to improve your skills, and have a fun week exploring the beautiful rocky coast of Maine, join me for Arts and Birding at the Hog Island Audubon Camp, June 11-16, 2017. Being in on the island as program director for this session is one of the highlights of my year! We still have a few spaces in both the sketching/painting track and the photography track— so please read on and consider being part of this incredible experience. Beginners to advanced participants are welcome!

Photography Track This session is scheduled at the height of bird nesting season, so you’ll have opportunities to photograph birds and chicks–including osprey, eagles, puffins, terns, and songbirds–at their most active and colorful time of year. In addition to birds on Hog Island, you’ll visit several mainland hot spots and photograph puffins and terns on Eastern Egg Rock while aboard the Snowgoose III. You’ll also be able to take advantage of magical dawn light and evening sunsets to photograph island landscapes. National Geographic Photographer Drew Fulton and former Boston Globe columnist and photographer Derrick Jackson will offer daily skill sessions and share their expertise in the field.

Arts Track– Come prepared to expand your skills in the supportive atmosphere of fellow artists and expert instructors—yours truly and fine artist and print maker Sherrie York. Hog Island’s quiet coves, rocky inlets, and old growth spruce forest provide opportunities for both exploration and art. Daily skill building sessions will cover techniques for drawing and painting, with a focus on nature journaling, birds, and landscapes.

About Hog Island– The island is just a short boat ride from the mainland, but it’s a world apart altogether—no cars, no shopping plazas, no houses, just 300 acres of Maine coastal spruce forest, rocky coves, and fantastic views in all directions. Handsome camp buildings that date to the 1890s, but updated with modern amenities, are concentrated at the tip of the island. This unique sanctuary has been offering education programs to adults and youth under the auspices of the National Audubon Society since 1936.

Visit the Hog Island website for additional details and registration, and don’t hesitate to ask a question in the comments or via email: jeanmackay(dot)art(at)gmail(dot)com.
 

Salamander Migration

You may notice robins in the yard or the first buds on the elms or daffodils ready to pop. But one of the best signs of the turning season for me is when the salamanders migrate. It happens on the first warm rainy night in spring. Sometimes it’s March, sometimes April. But when it rains all day and into the night, that’s the time when several species of salamanders come out from underground in the woods, where they spend most of their adult lives, and head to wetlands where they breed. If you happen to live someplace where roads intersect their habitat, you may see them in your headlight beams, or squished and stinking on an early morning jog. Or, if you’re like me, you pull on your rain gear and head out with a flashlight and help them cross the road.

I used to round up friends and kids to go out for the annual migration. One year I paid my sons a dime for every salamander and frog they found and I had to pony up two bucks each at the end of an hour. My kids are grown now, but when they see a rainy forecast they still text me to ask, Is this the night? Some new kids put up these fantastic signs — I hope they were out there during this week’s rains, soaking up one of the greatest rituals of spring.
Tips & Techniques- Don’t try to draw in the dark in the rain. Take a photo. I began this page with a pencil drawing compiled from two photos. I painted the yellow spots and used masking fluid to save them and some of the highlights. I then did a wet in wet wash of ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, and yellow ochre over the whole thing (the entire painting is just those three colors, with a touch of sap green and quin gold at the end). I used negative painting techniques for most of this, pulling out bits of leaves on the ground and the shapes of the salamanders.