Drawn In

Ice Cold

When temperatures have not climbed out of the single digits for a few days, going outside when it’s 10-degrees seems almost reasonable. And what more appropriate subject to focus on than ice? I walked along a nearby stream, looking at the variety of frozen formations. Though I had my sketchbook, it was too cold to open it, so I snapped a few photos and returned home to paint. How ironic then, when, sitting in my warm home office/studio, a frozen pipe burst upstairs, sending a cascade of water through walls, ceiling, and light fixtures into the kitchen. Ah, ice! In all its beauty and destructiveness. I am sharing only the interesting forms and sparing you the mopping up.

Fledglings Forever

This weekend’s freezing temperatures sent me packing my sketchbook and paints and seeking shelter in the natural history collection at a nearby museum. Amidst a long wall of bird specimens, I found these four fledgling Eastern screech owls. Most collections typically display adult birds, so it was unusual to find an entire set of young siblings. I was grateful for the chance to study these common, yet elusive owls up close. And yet, they haunt me, too. Their life in the wild was so brief, their time behind glass so long. My goal with this painting was to try to bring a bit of life back to these young owls and to share a glimpse their wild, wary beauty with you.

Tips and Techniques– When you have a lot of detail in your subject, it’s easy to get lost. Start with bigger shapes and values first. Once you have established larger structures, you can work on refining the color, deepening the values, and then adding smaller details. This holds true whether you are painting landscapes or buildings or birds. After sketching the owls, I did a wet-in-wet wash of cobalt blue and burnt sienna. Once that was dry, I began deepening the values and refining the larger feather groupings. I added the detailed barring on the feathers last, paying the most attention to the faces.

Screech owls are common throughout much of North America. Learn more about them at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds.

New Year’s Bouquet

The New Year is ushered in by overcast skies and a misty dampness hanging over woods and fields. I go out in search of something interesting to sketch, hike along a wet meandering stream, up through an old grove of white pines, and wind up in a field of waist-high goldenrod. By this time, the mist is beginning to spit, and the bleak daylight is fading. That’s when I see the New Year’s bouquet stretched out before me. Tight flower-like goldenrod leaf clusters, the result of tiny fly larva that stunt the plant, dot the field. I’m drawn to their curled leaves, twisting every which way; each with its own personality. They’re not much, but they’ll have to do in wishing you a Happy New Year. 

Simple Joys

Amidst the hustle of holiday preparations and merriment, I stole a few minutes of quiet out in the neighboring field on a sunny afternoon. A chattering flock of juncos were my only companions as I made my way around the grove of white pines that are slowly taking over the tangled meadow. I appreciate these moments for the simple joys they offer, and I wish you the same this holiday season and throughout the year.

Tips and Techniques– Although the sun was shining, the wind made 30֯ F feel like 20֯ F. I brought only my sketchbook and a pen outside, determined to find something to draw, but with no idea about what that might be. The sense of discovery is part of what makes heading out fun. At times like this, look for something simple to sketch; something you know you can capture in 10 minutes or less. I roughed in the white pines and some basic shapes for the birds, knowing that I could add details later from the comfort and warmth of indoors while watching juncos at my bird feeders.

Painting Natural History Collections

I had an opportunity to teach Painting Natural History Collections, a 1.5 hour online workshop during Winslow Art Center’s free Winter Bash last week. To my surprise and delight, more than 200 people from six countries joined in. How inspiring to find so many people interested in this subject! I’ve been poking around old museums specimens for many years and they have provided me hours of fascination, a wealth of painting subjects, and outstanding opportunities to expand my knowledge of natural history. I hope those who attended the session will now enjoy making discoveries of their own from the vast richness of museum collections.

Tips & Techniques– If you would like to watch the session, you can still sign up for the Winter Bash and access all of the online presentations. Signing up is free. I just opened a new four-week class, Drawn to Nature, and (fortunately or unfortunately depending on your position) it sold out in 24 hours. If you are interested in future classes, sign up for the waiting list on the Drawn to Nature link to receive an email when classes open. Thank you for your incredible support!

What Lies Within

Is there anything more astonishing that the flowering of an amaryllis? One day, a rough brown mass with tangled roots sits on your table and soon after a glorious and sensual bloom greets you upon entering the room. The transformation always gives me pause. What astonishing beauty might arise from within each of us?

The Collection

“I feel the need to fall in love with the world, to forge that relationship ever more strongly. But maybe I don’t have to work so hard. I have thought nature indifferent to humans, to one more human, but maybe the reverse is true. Maybe the world is already in love, giving us these gifts all the time — the glimpse of a fox, tracks in the sand, a breeze, a flower — calling out all the time: take this. And this. And this. Don’t turn away.”

Sharman Apt Russell
Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World

Tips and Techniques– Museum and nature center specimens and online natural history collections are excellent sources of painting inspiration, especially in winter. I love the sheer diversity, the sense of discovery, and the exquisite beauty and intricacies of these collections. Learn how to access a treasure trove of possibilities and paint along with me, combining specimens from several collections during Painting Natural History Collections, Friday, December 17, 10am PST, 1pm EST, offered for free by the Winslow Art Center. This workshop is part of Winslow’s Winter Bash! a free week of work-alongs, demos, and talks. If you can’t watch live, the program will be recorded so that you can see it later. Sign up online to receive the Zoom link.

In the Field- November

The neighboring field is thick with goldenrod, thorny wild roses, tangles of bittersweet, and tall grass. Most of it hasn’t been cut back in more than five years. A small grove of white pines gains ground each season, as do a few oak, cherry, and walnut trees along the edges. The slow transformation from old field to woods is well begun. I don’t usually roam into the field until the goldenrods have been matted by snow, but when I spied this nest, I waded in. In addition to this sketch, I brought home a good number of dried leaves and sticky seeds in my socks and boots. A worthwhile exchange, don’t you think?

SAVE THE DATE: Painting Natural History Collections, Friday, December 17, 10am PST, 1pm EST, Winslow Art Center via Zoom, FREE- Register Now!

Back in the Game

I haven’t sketched outside in weeks. First I was sick, then tired and recovering, then making up for lost time getting our house ready for winter. Suddenly, daylight savings time took my evenings and November’s sunshine grew thin. So, despite yesterday’s chill and plenty of weekend chores, I headed out with sketchbook in hand and a vow not to return until I had something on paper. Here you go…a simple sketch that puts me back in the game. 

Tips and Techniques- Getting out of a sketching habit is like getting out of an exercise habit. The longer you stay away, the harder it is to get back in. When that happens, whatever the reason, it’s best to bite the bullet and begin again. Though these beech leaves are simple, it was the act of being outside and putting pen to paper that I needed most. If that should happen to you, pick something, anything, and put a line down. Soon, there will be something good in front of you.

Portraits from Umbria

A bold red hat. A most unusual nose. A commanding man. A ghostly woman. In perfect profile, Federico Montefeltro and Battista Sforza stare at one another, held together forever in a framed diptych painted in 1473 by Piero della Francesca. Federico was born in the castle where we will be staying during my travel art workshop in Italy next May, so I decided to copy the portraits as a starting point for learning more about our destination.

The longer I looked at these faces, the more I wondered about Federico and Battista. What were their lives like? What did they love? What did they fear?


A daring and well-regarded war general in command of his own troops for hire during the 15th century, Federico lost his right eye during a jousting tournament at age 28. Afraid of assassination, he asked surgeons to remove part of his nose to improve peripheral vision in his remaining eye. Can you imagine? Federico went on to become Duke of Urbino, a champion of humanist education, and a patron of the arts.

At age 38, Federico married the lovely, educated 14-year-old maiden Battista Sforza. The marriage was arranged by Battista’s uncle and I have to set aside all modern perceptions of being a woman to fathom what this young girl might have thought about wedding a one-eyed man twice her age. Still, several accounts suggest that the pair had affection for one another and that Federico was grief stricken upon Battista untimely death in 1472 at age 26, three months after giving birth to her seventh child. Can you imagine?

The rest of these pages capture other things I’m learning—the transition from Gothic to Renaissance writing scripts, another bird, the challenge of mastering feminine and masculine Italian grammar (who decided that beef (il manzo) is masculine, but steak (la bistecca) is feminine?). This is not the stuff of travel guides but is nonetheless an intriguing way to begin.

Tips and Techniques– Most of you know that I am not a painter of portraits. I participated in #oneweek100people in 2017 and that may have been the last time I painted a face. Apparently, the style of the day was to paint people in perfect profile, revealing no emotion. Both Federico and Battista are more severe in the original oil paintings than in mine. I found it challenging enough just getting proportions right and trying for a decent likeness. But what I mostly learned is that painting something completely different opens new doors that lead to interesting places. I should be brave enough to try it more often. There are a few spots left in the Italy travel workshop– find out more here >