A work colleague surprised me last week when we stepped outside on a chilly afternoon and she declared, “November is my favorite month.” I was taken aback. In my entire life, I have never heard anyone choose November. We talked about what she liked so much: breathing in cold air, deep blue skies at dusk, quiet, Thanksgiving. Since that conversation, I have gone looking for Rosemary’s November. I’ve walked country roads late in the day, listened to geese overhead, and poked around the margins of weedy wetlands. Here’s what I found, and I send it to you with gratitude for following this blog and sharing your kind comments and thoughtful insights all year long. Here’s to November!
Tips and Techniques- Where to begin? I recommend starting with your sketchbook and a pen or pencil and a walk. Out on the roadside, or on a trail, walk for awhile until your mind stops thinking about what you were just doing or what you need to do or all the other things happening in your life. Walk until you start to become more present and begin to notice what’s around you. Then start looking. Look at the plants, watch for wildlife, see what’s happening. Then pick something that intrigues you and sketch it. I first noticed a single goldenrod gall and then saw about 30 more all around it. That’s how this page began. After you have something on your page, walk and look some more. Keep adding things until your page is full or its too cold and you have to go home. Hopefully, those will happen about the same time and you can retreat with a full page of discoveries.
Among the things I love about teaching is getting to know workshop participants. I enjoy helping them learn new techniques and challenge themselves in order to grow as artists. And I love seeing the artwork they produce. But the exchange isn’t just one-way. My students push me to grow, too. This month, I’m teaching a four-week course focused on bird eggs, nests, and feathers, and it’s definitely forcing me to up my game. Here are two recent paintings I did, based on class assignments and with thanks to an exceptionally talented group of “Art of the Bird” participants.
Tips & Techniques– Both of these paintings benefitted from a slow buildup of layers of watercolor. It’s especially important to have a delicate touch with eggs so that they remain translucent. I usually do a lot of experimenting to find the colors I want. For these paintings, I used combinations of raw sienna with phthalo blue as the main duo for the greens. You can see that I also carried raw sienna into the hummingbird nest, while mixing grays with combinations of raw and burnt sienna with cobalt and ultramarine blue. You might find doing a small mixing chart like this a handy reference for comparing color combinations.
Let’s face it: it’s going to be a long winter. Between the darkness, cold and Covid-19, I figure we’re all going to need a few good books and an extra helping of cake to make it through. So here are my top five book picks for artists, plus a delicious apple-cranberry torte.
My choices include a mix of artistic styles, from the highly precise to the wildly loose, from urban sketchers to nature journalers, each with a distinct approach that has expanded my skills and pushed me in new directions. If you’re looking for holiday gifts or winter reading, consider these with my highest recommendation:
Artist’s Journal Workshop, Cathy Johnson (2011) This thoughtful and comprehensive book unlocked the idea of keeping a journal to record my personal journey as an artist. It expanded my subject matter and approach, and ultimately led me to connect with other sketchbook artists and begin this blog. This book is one of Cathy Johnson’s finest—which is saying a lot, since all of her books are terrific. I love that it includes insights and artwork not only from Johnson, but from other artists as well, which provides excellent variety, inspiration, and examples.
Working With Color, Shari Blaukopf (2019) I’ve been following Shari Blaukopf’s blog for years and this book puts her expertise and artwork close at hand. If you’re not familiar with the Urban Sketching Handbook series, I recommend you seek it out. The series provides practical techniques and lots of examples in a small, handy format. In Working With Color, Blaukopf shares techniques for using watercolor on the go, with special emphasis on color choices and limited palettes. This book is suitable for beginners as well as more advanced watercolor artists. I’m also eager to get a copy of Suhita Shirodkar’s Techniques for Beginners, a new release from the same series.
The Joy of Botanical Drawing, Wendy Hollender (2020) Precision and beauty are key in botanical illustration and Wendy Hollender’s comprehensive book shows you how it’s done. She primarily uses colored pencils and watercolor pencils to create her masterpieces, but I find all of the underlying techniques she uses to be applicable to working in watercolor. This step-by-step guide to drawing and painting flowers, leaves, fruit, and more spells out how to work with basic shapes, develop values, and build up forms. Rather than leaving you overwhelmed, you’ll feel as though you finally understand the techniques and materials needed for botanical illustration. It takes patience and practice to work this way, but the investment will make you a better artist.
Urban Watercolor Sketching, Felix Scheinberger (2014) On the other end of the spectrum from Wendy Hollender, Felix Scheinberger’sstyle is super loose, his color choices bold, his lines wonky and fun. But don’t let that fool you. This guy is also a master of his medium. He provides a concise history of how watercolors are made, explores glazing and wet-in-wet techniques, explains color theory, and encourages you to develop your own style. The book is fun and engaging; I love coming back to it again and again for inspiration.
Explorers’ Sketchbooks, Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert (2016) I am fascinated by men and women throughout history who journeyed far and wide in search of new places and species and recorded their discoveries in sketchbooks. This book is a collection of excerpts from 70 artist-explorers and includes exquisite sketches and paintings they made in jungles, deserts, forests, and mountaintops. The explorer’s theme of my own book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, is inspired by them. If these men and women could work in the most challenging of conditions, we can certainly step outside, put pencil to paper, and begin a lifetime of discovery.
And a few brief mentions… If you are looking for books specifically focused on keeping a traditional nature journal, try Roseann Hanson’sNature Journaling for a Wild Life, Hannah Hinchman’sLittle Things in a Big Country,John Muir Laws’ Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, or books by Claire Walker Leslie. All share techniques and tools to get you started and plenty of ideas and artwork to keep you going.
And finally…Cake, Maira Kalman New York City based artist and author Maira Kalman’s books are quirky and fun and Cake is no exception. She’s teamed up with food writer Barbara Scott-Goodman for a delicious book with seventeen illustrated recipes. May I recommend the Flourless Chocolate Torte?
Your turn: What are your must-haves, game changers, or bed rock books?
In springtime, birds tuck their nests into dense foliage and tangled vines. In fall, I try to find as many nests as I can. It is a game of hide and seek in which the birds always win. Still, I walk in woods and fields and along the roadside, taking new paths, looking from new angles, scanning the trees. I count every nest as a victory; a way to understand the place where I live and the creatures that inhabit it. Alas, it is no easy task. Though I think I am paying attention, here are two recent finds that prove otherwise. I walked past these two nests several times a week all summer and fall without seeing a thing.
Tips and Techniques– Most birds—and their eggs, feathers, and nests—are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The law ensures the sustainability of populations of all protected migratory bird species. Unless you have a permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, you should not collect these things. Instead, sketch them where you find them, take a photo, and leave them in place. In addition, seek out nature centers and natural history museums that have a permit. Their collections are invaluable to educators, researchers, students, and artists.
I’m thrilled to share the news that my book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, is now available. Geared for ages 10+, it invites kids to begin a lifelong journey of nature exploration with ideas, tips, and plenty of space to sketch. Launching a book makes you think about the people and experiences that were critical to launching you— family, relatives, teachers, friends. People who believed in you; people who were hard on you; or, in my case, people who encouraged me not to hide my sketchbooks in a drawer.
My grandmother, more than anyone, is responsible for nurturing my creative tendencies and interest in the Arts. A painter herself, she praised my earliest attempts at drawing and painting. She enrolled me in a plein air painting class for adults when I was just entering high school (I was in WAY over my head). She displayed a clunky clay mask that I made in art class in her living room! She shared her curiosity and enthusiasm and nurtured that in me.
If there are young people in your life, think about ways to nurture their sense of wonder and creativity. If that means giving them The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, wonderful. Better still, add a box of colored pencils, and spend time together discovering how big and beautiful the world is if we only go outside to look.
TO ORDER Use special discount code “nature25” and receive 25% off from 11/1 through 11/6 when you order from Tumblehome Books. Or order from your local bookseller with ISBN# 9781943431595, or at Amazon.
JOIN ME THIS WEEK ON ZOOM Look, See, Sketch, 11/4, 5-5:45pm (EST) FREE Register:Tumblehome Books This Zoom session is for youth and adults alike who enjoy exploring nature or drawing or both. We’ll talk about The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, and you’ll have a chance to ask questions and draw along with me as I share some activities and tips from the book to spark your curiosity. Art Chat 11/5, 10am (PST)/1pm (EST) FREE Register: Winslow Art Center Come talk art and creativity with me and Winslow Art Center Director Martha Jordan.
You never know what you’ll find out on the roadside. Although I walk the same two-mile loop frequently, few days are ever the same. Subtle changes shift one week into the next, one season into another. Noticing is the art of going.
My recent walks have been in the late afternoon; wind picking up, sun low on the horizon. The flowers and grasses have gone to seed, a few bunches of wild grapes are left for the birds. It’s a good time to capture the moment: October in its final fading days. November is coming fast.
Admittedly, this next page is an unusual addition to this post.I came upon a dead barred owl lying in the grassy margin of the roadside, clearly struck by a car or truck. Daylight was fading fast, but the owl was so absolutely beautiful that I couldn’t let it go. If I didn’t paint it then, the opportunity might be gone. There was only time to capture a fleeting impression of feathers, but that seemed a fitting way to acknowledge the life and the loss.
More than half of the autumn leaves are on the ground now where I live, which means two things: lots of raking and beautiful colors littering the woods. It doesn’t take long for leaves to dry out and fade, so I have forsaken the rake in favor of the paint brush. A good choice, don’t you think?
Tips and Techniques– Leaf “portraits” like this are a good way to practice painting skills. They force you to work on getting crisp edges, mix subtle color variations, and use both wet-in-wet and dry brush techniques. I started with a light pencil drawing and then a wet-in-wet wash to establish the lightest colors and define the shapes. I continued with three or four more layers to deepen and adjust the colors and add texture. Adding a shadow gives these a bit more dimension. There are a lot of leaves out there to choose from—have a go!
I love the way autumn builds to its peak color, first slowly, then with bold strokes. The reds and oranges are showstoppers, but it’s the yellows that hold it all together. Birch, walnut, hickory, cottonwood, beech, poplar, aspen, gingko, sassafras—all yellow. But my favorite is the luminous golden leaves of the bitternut, which come into their own in mid-October and quickly sail away like so many paper kites in gusts of wild wind.
Tips and Techniques– An all yellow subject is a bit tricky. The color is so light on the value scale, but you still need to create variations from light to dark for interest and depth. I used aureolin and quin gold, two very transparent yellows, as a base, and added burnt sienna and burnt umber for deeper tones. The shadows are cobalt blue. Keeping the entire palette transparent was important for avoiding heavy or murky yellows.
It’s apple season here in New York; the time for picking apples and drinking cider and making pies. But for sketching, I prefer to leave the perfect apples for others and seek out wild and wind fallen fruit. Like Thoreau, I find almost all wild apples handsome. They are beautiful not in spite of their misshapen and knotted appearance, but because of it.
I recently had the honor of being interviewed by Bethan Burton for an episode of the Journaling with Nature podcast. We talk about my approach to sketching, my love of subjects that are often overlooked, and about my book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook. Everyone should be interviewed by someone as sweet as Bethan. Her soft Australian accent and ability to put you at ease makes the conversation flow and leave you feeling like you’ve gained a friend.
Give a listen here: or search for Journaling With Nature wherever you listen to podcasts. You can find it on Apple, Google, and Spotify.
Bird feathers- wow! Form, function, and beauty in one perfect package. And so much variety and complexity of patterns that my head is spinning. I’ve been preparing for my upcoming class on The Art of the Bird by gathering resources and reference material and working out painting exercises. Painting these feathers gave me a whole new appreciation for the simplicity of the form and the challenge of rendering them well.
Tips and Techniques– If you’d like to make your head spin with a dizzying array of bird feathers, check out The Feather Atlas. The online image database is dedicated to the identification and study of the flight feathers of North American birds. The feathers illustrated are from the curated collection of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. You can look up birds by species or browse the collection. Check out the owls or the nighthawks for starters- either one will leave you marveling.
Mark your calendar…I have two free Zoom chats coming up in November: Look, See, Sketch, 11/4, 5-5:45pm (EST) Art Chat, 11/5, 1pm (EST) / 10am (PST)