Lush, Green and Warm
The northern winter can start to feel long about this time of year, so I like to take a trip someplace warm and green to buoy my spirits and provide inspiration. I’m not talking about Florida or the Caribbean or Mexico, the destination of choice for many in February and March. No, I’m just talking about paying a visit to the nearest greenhouse. I met three artistic friends at the Lyman Conservancy at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. and, while snow blew sideways outside the glass, we enjoyed sketching for a few hours surrounded by tropical splendor. It’s enough to get me through another week.
Tips and Techniques– I really learned my lesson this week: tackle what you can handle in the time and space you have. I spent about 45 minutes trying to do a complex negative painting of pitcher plants while standing up in a tight corner of the humid greenhouse. It was a disaster. I kept thinking I might salvage it, but finally cut my losses and began again. I drew this second page in about 15 minutes and gathered enough information to finish painting it at home. Abandoning a painting that isn’t working is hard to do. But sometimes a fresh start is the best way forward.
Odd noises on the back porch woke my husband and I from slumber the other night but, too tired to investigate, we decided not to get up. The next morning, our visitor was all too clear—a swath of destruction lay scattered across the yard and a six-inch paw print marked the back steps. I figured black bears would wait until the snow melted and weather warmed before venturing out. But alas, we are all very much awake.
Tips and Techniques– Don’t be afraid to be bold in your sketchbook. Zooming in on a subject can add a sense of drama. Had I made a tiny sketch of a bear, it would have been less effective and less fun. If you typically do tiny (safe) sketches, try going bigger and bolder in the future.
Out of the Cold
Out of the snow and the mud and still-frozen ground, the skunk cabbage emerges each year. I go in search of its hooded flowers in bottomland woods, where it pushes up from the margins of vernal pools and muddy streamside banks. Sketching it each March is almost like a rite of passage, marking the transition from winter to spring. Despite the snow and cold, the great thaw has begun. We have turned a corner.
Tips and Techniques– I had intended to do two sketches of skunk cabbage, one with a brush pen and the other with a fine liner. But after the first page was done, I was too cold to continue. This morning is far colder. So, I went through prior year sketches for comparison, which you can view by scrolling through the gallery above. I prefer the pages with greater subtlety and detail. But I’ll have to wait for a warmer day to sketch outside again.
Sketching the Colors of Spring begins this Thursday, March 23. Watch spring unfold with a heightened awareness of color during this watercolor series focusing on in-depth color exploration, experimentation, and practice. I’m also thrilled to share that I will be returning to Italy this fall with Winslow Art Center for Sketching Nature in the Umbrian Autumn, September 30 through October 7. Come along!
I was digging around my desk the other day for a pen or pencil that might give me a looser line than I can get with the fine-nib pens I typically use. I unearthed a brush pen, stuck it in my sketch bag, and pulled it out today when sketching again at the Pember Museum of Natural History. I’ve spent a lot of time with the museum’s bird nests and eggs, but in all my years there, I’ve never drawn from its mammal collection. I also have never looked closely at moles, shrews, or hedgehogs before. Somewhere between ugly and cute, their probing snouts and large forefeet are perfectly adapted to rooting around for earthly treats like worms and insects. And the brush pen? It’s graphic, imprecise, unforgiving, and sort of fun. I won’t give up my Micron pens, but it was good dig into the toolbox and try something new.
Tips and Techniques– A brush pen produces a very graphic line, which tends to flatten the form you are drawing. To counter this, I left the white of the paper and graded the paint from light to dark, which helped the rounded forms become more dimensional. You can do this whether painting moles or mushrooms or potatoes. Push the values to make your work more dynamic.
I’m not sure what it is that draws me so strongly to bird nests. But over and over, I am fascinated by their beauty, structure, and variety. And the fact that birds make them with their beaks is nothing short of remarkable. I can’t imagine making something so fine – other than on paper.
Tips and Techniques– I was able to borrow an educator’s loan kit of nests from the Pember Museum of Natural History to make this page. It contained such a treasure trove that I called two artist friends to join me for a nest sketch party. Ask your local nature center or museum if they have a nest collection that you might work with. You may need to draw on location, but it’s worth working from the real thing, rather than a photo. But beware: you just may become nest obsessed, too.
Drawn from the Sea
Isn’t it amazing that a simple chemical compound, calcium carbonate, can create so much? It forms the hard outer shells of mollusks, who spin it into a myriad of forms and colors. As mollusks develop, they absorb salt and chemicals from sea water and secrete proteins and calcium carbonate, which hardens on the outside of their bodies, creating a hard shell. Mollusks continue to grow their shells as they age, adding layers year by year. When they die, they leave behind their beautiful creations, small gifts from a vast and mysterious ocean.
Tips and Techniques– There is a precision to seashells that can make them challenging to draw. If you don’t have a lot of time or if you are sketching at the beach, accept some wonkiness. I drew these directly in pen while standing up looking at a museum case and my goal was to get as many on the page as I could in the time I had. I love painting all the patterns on shells, but again, I decided against perfection in favor of getting the gist of each one. There is something nice about painting shells and thinking about warm beaches in winter. If you’ve got a few tucked away, pull them out and give it a go.
Huge flocks of red-winged blackbirds returned this week on winds from the south. They flew over farm fields in a current of birds, wave after wave crossing the sky. These early migrants are always such a welcome sign, even though we have miles to go before spring arrives. In anticipation of that loveliest season, I painted this American robin’s nest to prepare for my upcoming workshop series, Painting the Colors of Spring. The first session focuses on Earth colors—a nice way of acknowledging “mud season,” while also paying tribute to the bird who brings Earth colors to life like no other harbinger of spring.
Tips and Techniques– I struggled and failed at four paintings in the last week. I tell you this not because I recommend it. Rather, as a reminder that it’s part of the painting process. When you are unsatisfied with your results, avoid the common misery that comes with concluding that you’re a terrible painter. Instead, try to figure out what went wrong—was the drawing off? Did you rush the painting? Was it your color choices? Poor planning or design? Do you need to work on skills to help you tackle the subject you chose? Consider making notes right on the painting that highlight what you need to work on. Then pick up your pencil and get going.
I’ve been walking nearly every day lately. Typically, it’s the same two to three miles of country roads, past scattered houses, young woods, and farm fields with sweeping views. The sameness of the route makes it easy to spot unusual things. This week, I was treated to a small flock of snow buntings foraging in the stubble of a corn field at the edge of the road. I love seeing these birds of the high artic and consider myself lucky when I do. Although they are not rare, they aren’t around every year and they seem to range widely—here one day and gone the next. I’m glad to keep this one in my journal.
Tips and Techniques– It was too cold to sketch outside, so I made pencil sketches from video to help me warm up and get to know these birds better. You might try sketching birds at a feeder or from video to loosen up before tackling a more finished piece in watercolor.
Progress Report– I’m happy to share that I’ve just posted a workshop series, Painting the Colors of Spring, which begins March 23. My wrist continues to make progress, though I still need to work on range of motion and strength. My paperwhite bulbs, on the other hand (see Progress Unfolding post on 1/16), have not grown at all and I finally pitched them in the compost. So much for my lovely idea of blooms and bones.
Many thanks for all of your kind notes and best wishes for a swift recovery from my broken wrist and surgery. The outpouring of support was such a nice gift amidst this trying time. I am so pleased to report that surgery went well and my hard cast was swapped for a removable brace last week. I’ve started OT and I have a lot of work ahead to regain range of motion and strength. While I’m thrilled to now be able to tie my shoes and use a fork with my right hand, I was most eager to test my abilities with a pen and paint brush…and I couldn’t be happier with the results. I bought these bulbs knowing that I could gauge the progress of my recovery as the paperwhites unfold. Stage one accomplished, I look forward to the growth still to come.
Tips and Techniques– The best advice I can share this week is the advice I’m giving myself: take your time. Every line and stroke feels both familiar and new to me and I have to take frequent brakes to rest. Maybe that’s a good thing. It allows you to see things fresh each time you start again and to evaluate colors, values, and composition as you go. Enjoy it!
The air was cold and crisp, the ice smooth as glass. Perfect for a family skating party. I wish I could say I was in the midst of landing a lovely spin or graceful figure eight, but I was merely trying to tell another skater that his laces were dragging when I suddenly hit the ice. I was able to get up and complete skating the counterclockwise loop to get off the rink, but I quickly realized that my right wrist was not looking or feeling good. Long story short, I must take an unexpected break from painting and blogging while my unexpected break is repaired and heals.
Wishing you a wonderful holiday season, with much joyful and safe skating if you so choose. I look forward to being back sometime in 2023 with two working hands and more creative explorations.
Tips and Techniques: Some of you will recognize this piece as the banner from Winslow Art Center’s Winter Bash. It was a fun but challenging assignment, as I had to create something that could be cropped to several formats and also be overlayed with text. I love starry winter nights (and skating at night) and that was my inspiration. I created it with several washes of ultramarine, indanthrone blue, alizarin crimson, and a touch of aureolin yellow, over spattered masking fluid. Try it– it’s fun! Keep creating!