A Welcome Sight

Whether it’s their sweet song, colorful breast, or way of bobbing across the lawn, seeing robins in springtime is a welcome sight. They spend the winter in small flocks feeding on berries and sheltering in nearby woods, where they blend in well with russet-colored oaks leaves and gray bark. But as the grass begins to green, robins are frequenting my yard more often, probing the soft ground for worms and other insects. They are common birds, yes, but no less deserving of attention, gratitude, and a sketch.

Tips and Techniques– I enjoy doing sketchbook pages like this, where I pick a bird and study it in different postures. I always learn a lot, both in the pencil sketch stage and when painting. My goal is to get the essential shapes and features down, preferably without too much fuss, so that the sketch stays fresh. Repeating the same species forces me to look more carefully. Here’s what I think about: What makes a robin look like a robin (and not another bird of similar size)? How can I get at least a basic amount of information on the page while the bird is moving? How can I use a photo reference without simply copying a photo? How can I let the paint do more of the work—mixing and blending on the paper to add interest?

Spring Begins

Before it unfolds in a grand show of color and song, spring is all subtlety. I go looking for it first in wetlands. There, blackbirds returning from the south are greeted by last year’s matted cattails and the reddening stems of dogwood. The odor of skunk cabbage is pungent; its maroon streaked hoods emerge from the mud, hiding small flowers that feed newly awakened bees. I sketch skunk cabbage every year, but this time I also discovered a patch of scouring rush (Equisetum hyemale), a leafless, hollow-stemmed primitive plant that has survived since the mid-Devonian, 350 million years also.

High temperatures rose into the 60s this past week and a few trees began to bud. From a distance, there is a welcome hint of color in their branches. Up close: tiny flowers and catkins have dusted my desk with a fine yellow powder of pollen, my reward for bringing a few stems inside.  

And so, I bring you the first blush of spring in New York, minus the pollen and the odor of skunk cabbage. (Click the images to view larger.)

I am excited to announce that I am offering a new Technique Takaway at the Winslow Art Center: Ink and Watercolor Basics for Sketchers, Friday, May 14, 2-3:30 PST / 5-6:30 EST. This session is virtual via Zoom, $40. Find out more and REGISTER HERE.

Needing Green

It’s a perennial theme come March: the need for green. The hunger usually drives me to visit a greenhouse for a day of warmth and chlorophyll. Barring that this year, I’m stuck with my houseplants. A poor substitute, to be sure, but it’s nice to paint something that isn’t brown for a change.

Tips & TechniquesHow do you know when you’re finished? That question was posed to me by one of my class participants last week and it gave me pause. I have an intuitive sense about it, but the question forced me to define what I do at the final stages more specifically. In addition to watching this page evolve, consider these questions to evaluate your work at the final stages:

  • Have you developed a full range of values?
  • How’s the composition? Do you want to add anything to strengthen it?
  • Do you want to add text?
  • Would a border pull things together?
  • Did you convey what you set out to?

The Green Palette: Sap green, yellow ochre and Prussian blue are the main colors I used to mix these greens (Prussian and yellow ochre make some nice gray-greens). The darker greens are sap green and ultramarine. The grays are mainly violet and yellow ochre. I added a light wash of aureolin in places to brighten the other greens.

A Day at the Beach

When March feels like January and the urge to go outside and sketch no longer seems sane, I’m in trouble. I could use a change of scenery and fresh artistic inspiration, but, alas, there’s nowhere to go. So I’ve turned to my collection of beach finds to take me to warmer places and sunnier days. I like imagining whelks and horseshoe crabs crawling on sandy bottomed shores and blue mussels, sea stars, and urchins crammed into rocky cervices. Out there in the Atlantic, summer is just a dream away.   

Tips and Techniques– A collection like this is perfect for rainy days and times when you just want to practice. I decided to sketch directly in pen and use a size 12 round brush to keep this loose and spontaneous. Had I gone for a more precise approach, I’d still be working on it. When you sketch a collection, start with one of the largest objects first. Then add your second and third objects close to it. Build out from there. You can always tuck smaller items into tight spaces or fill gaps in the design.

Savory and Sweet

My sketches this week are an effort to appreciate the small pleasures of life and to look for joy in the everyday. Typically, I wander out into nature for inspiration, but I didn’t need to go beyond my own kitchen this week. For the savory: a bunch of ordinary parsnips that seem to dance on the page. And for the sweet: a delectable batch of cream puffs that I made from scratch for the first time ever. If I could offer you one or the other, there’s no question which it would be. Instead, I give you both and wish you sweet moments to savor during the week ahead.

Heads up: Registration opens March 3 for the Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine with lots of covid-19 safety precautions in place for this season’s programs. I will be directing Arts & Birding, June 20-25, with an all star lineup, including artists Sherrie York, Barry VanDusen, and Sean Murtha.

Day after Day

You know the drill. The days blur into weeks and suddenly it’s late February. We’re nearly a year into the pandemic and, although I’m grateful for how fortunate I have been, I’m tired too. My sketchbook typically reflects moments of beauty and discovery, but I thought I should also record the sameness and sentiment of “Just another Covid day.” I was glad for the geese…and the coffee.

Outside, Inside

It’s been mighty cold here this week— the temperature most days hasn’t crept out of the teens—decidedly not outdoor sketching weather. But I did manage a walk in snowy woods, where tracks of squirrels, deer, mice, and beaver gave away the presence of far heartier mammals. I also found this fine turkey feather, which was enough to get me started on this sketchbook page. This weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count, a global count and celebration of birds. I was happy to record 16 species this morning from the warmth of the kitchen, while the thermometer outside read -7 F.

Tips and Techniques– Here my top tips for painting bird feathers, which are trickier than you might think. Practice helps!

1. The Center Vane (Rachis)– Start with this line, keeping your edges clean and tapering from bottom to top. The rachis is cylindrical, not flat, and often casts a slight shadow, which can really make your feather look “right.”

2. Shape– Barbs extend out and upward from the center rachis. Though they are sometimes unlocked at the edge, there should not be gaps at the center; most feathers have crisp edges unless barbs are unlocked.

3. Bottom Barbs– Keep them delicate and downy; wet the paper first and drop paint into it.

4. Color– Even dark feathers are semi-transparent. Avoid overworking. The fewer strokes the better.

5. Shadow– Add if you want to help give dimension, but keep it light.

Note: Feathers are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Sketch them where you find them or return them to the field when you are finished.

Workshop this week! The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook
2/18/21, 5:30-7pm, FREE; ages 10+
Register:  Columbia Land Conservancy
If you like exploring nature or drawing or both, this session is for you! Ask questions and draw along with me as I share some activities and tips from my new book to spark your curiosity. This session is especially suited to the 10+ old artist, explorer, or nature lover — and adults who have wanted to try nature journaling.

Nest Gallery

A tangle in the brush. Strips of woven grape vine and grass. A downy mass of cattails bound with sedges and reeds. No matter where I find them or what they’re made of, I simply find bird nests irresistible. I have been drawing and painting bird nests weekly since November, in part because I’ve been teaching a class on The Art of the Bird, but also because I love the challenge and the beauty of painting nests. So, today, you get a gallery of nests…enjoy! (Click any image to view larger.)

1. Collecting on Paper- These nests are in the collection of the Pember Museum of Natural History, which recently reopened after months of pandemic closure. I spent two hours in front a single glass case, pen in hand, and could easily have gone another two.

2. Vireo- Using ink and watercolor is my favorite approach to rendering a nest. It gives me the satisfaction of drawing and a solid roadmap for adding color.

3. Marsh wren- I did the all watercolor nest as part of a class demonstration. Afterward, I decided to do it again using ink first. Which do you prefer?

4. Black chinned hummingbird- This was another class demonstration with a simpler nest to help participants work on making nests dimensional with light and shadow.

5. Red-winged blackbird- The larger strands of a blackbird’s nest make it easier to weave with paint.

6. A single egg- When my cousin asked me to paint a nest with a single blue egg to celebrate the birth of her first grandchild, I gladly accepted. I did two versions– one with ink and one without– to offer her a choice of styles. And while the due date has come and gone, I’m happy to say that the nest was delivered on time.

New online workshop: The Artist Sketchbook, February 23 through March 16, Tuesdays 6-8pm EST/ 3-5 pm PST. Class limited to 12 participants. Get details >

Running Start

I’ve been a runner for many years. I’m not particularly good or fast or driven, but I appreciate that running keeps me fit and gets me outside year-round. It also gives me an opportunity to see what’s happening along the rural routes I frequent. I watch for birds, notice roadside wildflowers, enjoy big skies, and frequently catch a glimpse of something that becomes the inspiration for painting. Such was the case last week, when a flock of small birds flitting among a cluster of cattails caught my eye. I went back later and made a preliminary sketch from the car on a frigid afternoon. This gave me a decent running start on this piece, which I then painted at home.

New! Explorer’s Gallery

Calling Young Nature Explorers! Since the release of The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook in November, families, grandparents, neighbors, friends, and educators have been sharing the book with the special young people in their lives. Now, I’m inviting youth to share the art of their discoveries in the new Explorer’s Gallery in The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook section of this blog.

If you know kids who have been exploring and sketching nature, send photos of their artwork to explorers_sketchbook@jeanmackayart.com. Include the youth’s first name, age and state (e.g., Alice, 10, NY), and watch the gallery for new artwork each week.

Help spread the word! I can’t wait to see and share what young people are discovering!