Drawn In

On My Desk

I should never have opened the seed pod. My desk was already littered with a growing fall collection, art supplies, field guides, and books I hadn’t put away. But it had been years since I opened a trumpet vine’s bean-like pod and I had forgotten what the seeds looked like. Of course, as soon as I split the case I remembered, just in time for an explosion of paper-thin seeds to scatter everywhere, as nature intended. I can also attest that the tiny round seeds of the yellow foxtail successfully dispersed, and I suspect I will be finding them for many weeks to come.

Tips and Techniques– Clean up your work surface every now and then so that you can enjoy a fresh start. Ha! That is my takeaway this week. But the other is to just go with what’s in front of you. You don’t need fancy subjects or perfect compositions. There’s beauty in the small and mundane, too. That’s one of the things I love about nature sketching. There is so much to discover right in front of you.

The Last Golden Light

The field next to our property is in its full glory lately. Bees are buzzing in the goldenrod, asters are blooming in shades of white and purple, and tiny orange jewelweed dots the greenery. Numerous walnut trees border the field and frame the view. The chest high thicket is so dense that I won’t be able to walk in it until January, when the stems are brown, brittle, and matted from heavy snow. But for now, it is at its best, especially as the sun descends in the late afternoon, casting a golden light that reminds me in the most glorious way to pay attention.

Tips and Techniques– This piece takes advantage of an underlying grid to give it structure. I laid it out as a 4 x 3 grid of equal sized boxes and then combined boxes to suit the subject at hand. A limited palette of Hansa yellow medium, Prussian blue, quin gold, and a touch of violet and quin rose also create cohesion among the major elements. You can learn more and see other examples of this technique here and here.

The Shimmer

Did you know that a group of hummingbirds is called a shimmer? Hummingbirds don’t “flock” together, the way many bird species do, so several names have come to describe them as a group. You can also call them a charm, a glittering, a tune, a bouquet, or a hover. Truth be told, I have only seen hummingbirds individually of late, but painting several in different positions seemed a better way to capture their movement, beauty, and vitality.

The Shimmer, watercolor, 8×10″

Tips and Techniques– When you are painting birds, do you ever overwork them to the point of killing them on paper? With such complex feather patterns and colors, that’s not an uncommon thing to do. It’s exactly what happened on my first attempt at painting hummingbirds last week. I immediately got too tight, and soon the birds looked static and lifeless. Even though I had invested several hours in the painting, I decided it would be better to start over than to press on. I began again by doing gesture drawings (right) from life and from videos which forced me to convey the bird’s incredible postures and movements, rather than details and colors. From there, I started a second painting (above), working more loosely this time. The lesson: don’t be afraid to let a bird go and begin again if your painting isn’t working.


Join me for FACING BIRDS HEAD ON (via Zoom), a free program on Friday, September 17, 10:00-11:30 AM Pacific Time/1:00-2:30 PM Eastern Time at
Winslow Art Center, and TAPPING AUDUBON’S PASSION: Sketching Birds in Watercolor
Thursday, September 23, 2-5pm (via Zoom) at
Currier Museum of Art. Details on the Workshops page.

Your world for the moment

Too rainy, too humid, too buggy, too many other things to do; so it is that August is nearly over and I haven’t sketched in my garden since June. Determined not to miss the purple hyacinth vine climbing over the garden arbor, inviting me in as intended, I finally took pen and paint to paper. Thank goodness. In the process, I got lost in shades of lavender and magenta, and found a lovely world for the moment. What a good reason to become a gardener or an artist, or both.

Tips and Techniques- I like picking a single flower species and sketching it many times on the same page. I look for some choice blooms as well as ones that are starting to fade or have already gone to seed. Not only do I like learning about the plant, but I also enjoy the challenge of creating a pleasing composition with repeating forms, patterns, and colors. Give it a try. Pick one of your favorite blooms and really look at it. Take Georgia O’Keefe’s words to heart and make it your world for the moment.

HEADS UP! Winslow Art Center is offering a month of free events during September as a show of appreciation to its class participants and an introduction to its programming. Everyone is welcome to sign up– not just former students. Check out the great lineup. I am offering Facing Birds Head On, on September 17.

Doubly Good

You have to be in the right place at the right time to see a common nighthawk. Even then, you need to be lucky.  Nighthawks are nocturnal birds that fly at dusk over fields, ballparks, cities and towns, hawking insects in the air with quick wingbeats interrupted by soaring, swooping, and gliding. At first glance you might mistake one for a large bat. But then it soars or dives and you think, no, that’s a bird. Unfortunately, common nighthawks are no longer common—they’ve suffered a 60-percent decline in population since the 1960s. I’ve seen one on only four occasions. So, I felt especially lucky to witness one in flight this week after getting a late-evening ice cream cone at a local farm market. A doubly good treat.

Tips and Techniques– I love doing this kind of journal page where inspiration and learning come together. Next time you see something you don’t know much about, sketch it, and then do some research. Add notes right on the page. You’ll be much more likely to remember your experience and retain what you learn.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS: Tapping Audubon’s Passion: Sketching Birds in Watercolor, Thursday, September 23, 2-5pm (via Zoom), and the Olana Plein Air Festival, in person on Saturday, September 25 at the Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, NY. Visit the Workshops page to learn more.

Seals Hauled Out

If seeing harbor seals lazing on seaweed draped rocks isn’t awesome enough, hearing them growling at each other and splashing at rivals in a full-on water fight ranks high on my list of Maine vacation experiences. This group of about 40 seals hauls out to rest on the same rocky ledges at low tide each day. I sketched them on two separate days; first, from a place on shore where I used binoculars to view them, and the second time from a closer rocky outcrop that we reached by canoe. Tucked in among the rocks myself, I could see them much better, but still needed binoculars for better views.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), harbor seals haul out to regulate their body temperature, molt, interact with other seals, give birth, and nurse their pups.

It looks like the seals are sitting on top of the water (above), but the rocks are just underneath them and are revealed as the tide continues to go out. You can see that there is a lot of color variation among this group of seals. When the rocks are visible (below), many blend in perfectly with the seaweed draped rocks. I especially liked the large white one whose fur gleamed golden in the sun. (Day 1 sketch below, Day 2 above)

Tips and Techniques: When you sketch from binoculars, you only get about six second to remember what you saw—hardly enough to make a detailed drawing. Still, if your subject weighs 250 pounds and isn’t moving quickly, you can make it work. Fortunately, the shapes and postures of seals are not too complicated, and they tend to rest in similar poses, so you can watch and sketch and wait for them to resume a pose if they move. When sketching from shore, I painted on location using an Etchr sketchbook with excellent watercolor paper. From the canoe and rocky ledge, I sketched in pencil only in my Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook and added text, watercolor, anatomy, and close up head shot later.

Vinalhaven Sketchbook 2021

Islands all along the east coast are invaded each summer by lovers of sun, beaches, and beauty. DownEast Maine islands are no different, except that the beaches are rocky, the water is cold, and you’re likely to get a healthy dose of fog as well as sun. If you go far enough out to sea, you can add solitude to the list of attributes. We’ve found all of that on the island of Vinalhaven, which sits at the margin of Penobscot Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Here are a few pages from my recent retreat. You can find past Vinalhaven sketches here and here.

Tip Toe Mountain Park combines moss-carpeted spruce woods, rocky beaches with fascinating geology and seaweed draped rocks, and granite ledges with spectacular views. The occasional song of the hermit thrush or cry of the osprey overhead punctuate an otherwise silent forest.

Locals vs. Outsiders– There are tensions on any island between locals and summertime outsiders and the strain they place on finite resources and services. Demanding, entitled “summer jerks” as they are known on Vinalhaven are not appreciated. There are also insidious plant and animal invaders that can quickly damage ecosystems. I was dismayed to find this new outsider, the European black slug, which arrived only in 2018. I found it both fascinating and repulsive and I hate the thought of seeing more of them on the East coast in the future.

On the other hand, I was delighted to find the flowering ghost plant, Monotrope uniforma (you may also know it as Indian pipes) sprouting in the forest. This native species lacks chlorophyll and takes its sustenance from certain fungi which, in turn, are co-dependent on beech trees.

Along the Roadside are lots of hardy and familiar outsiders along with a few native eastern wildflowers that co-exist where poor soil or disturbance favor only the tenacious, as all islanders tend to be.

The Basin is a large and stunningly beautiful protected tidal basin, surrounded by rocky granite outcrops and spruce forest. We hiked and canoed there, and I’ll have some sketches of harbor seals to share when I finish them in the coming days.

Tips and Techniques– Mix it up on your next vacation. Try a variety of approaches, materials, and layouts to capture parts of your journey. I like having closeups mixed with maps and landscape views to convey my experiences and an overall sense of place.

Enough Already!

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the near daily rain we’d been experiencing in Upstate New York, which had been a boon to mushroom growth but not much else. Since then, it’s been more of the same: rain, humidity, and mushrooms. I want to stop sketching them, I really do. But with more colors and varieties sprouting by the day, I just can’t seem to stop. When opportunity arises, I find myself wandering the grove of oaks on our property, looking for the latest species to emerge, and adding them to my sketchbook. So enough already—I promise I’ll try harder—and look to my garden or what’s happening along the roadside in the weeks ahead. But first…more mushrooms.

Tips and Techniques– Experiment with different approaches to the same subject. Initially, I wanted to do a deep dive into each mushroom species so that I could try to identify and learn more about them. But with so many varieties coming on, I lost the ability to do spore prints and keep up with the research. Instead, I decided to just get them on the page using pencil and watercolor and ink and watercolor. I thought about doing a mushroom map to diagram my route, but then I discovered the massive bolete and ran out of space.

A Magnificent Structure

“What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure, that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.”

Albert Einstein

Tips and Techniques— I sketched and painted this nest and quote as a demonstration for an online class that explores ways to capture the essence of a subject. While I find research and scientific information invaluable for field sketching, I also appreciate how a few spare lines of poetry or a quote can cut to the chase, helping to express what drew me to a subject in the first place. Try it. Next time you sketch a subject in nature, see if you can find a quote or poem – or write a few words of your own – to express what it means to you.

Mushroom Rains

It has rained nearly every day for a week straight. This is not good if you like summer or swimming or outdoor dining or if you want to cut the lawn every now and then. It’s not good if you like painting outside or if you want your watercolor paints to dry inside without using a hairdryer. What all the rain and humidity is good for is mushrooms. They are fruiting like gangbusters in a myriad of colors, forms, and variety. I went out to sketch them during a blessed break in the rain and managed to get a first layer of paint on before another round of storms rolled in. Alas, there are more to discover, but since it is raining again I will have to be content with these.

Tips and Techniques– When you are sketching mushrooms, making field notes right on the page is a useful way to capture some of the information you will need for identification. Mushrooms are bafflingly difficult to identify to the species level, even with a decent field guide. Note the size and shape of the cap and stem, type of gills or pores, and the texture. Making a spore print and cutting the flesh to see what color is inside is also important. Or you can skip all that and simply enjoy the shapes and colors of these fascinating fungi.