“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.
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!
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.
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 >
Red-winged blackbirds hide their nests of woven sedges, grasses, and cattails deep in marshes, wet meadows, and swamps. Females weave the structure low to the ground, finding perfect hiding places to lay their eggs and raise young. Sometimes several females will nest in close proximity and even share the same mate. Because of their wet locations and perfect camouflage, I have never found a blackbird nest in the field. The ones I’ve seen and painted are from natural history museums and nature centers. Sometimes they are recently collected and sometimes, as with the one here, they are more than 100 years old. What a pleasure it is to glimpse the secrets of the nest and share the beautiful artistry of the bird.
Tips and Techniques– When painting a nest, I pick out major strands that can become “guideposts” for the structure. These are typically larger strands of nesting material that I can use as reference points for all the small stuff around them. When I get lost in the complexity, I return to my guideposts and work the sections behind and between them, adding more detail with each pass of paint. Follow the work in progress to decipher some of the stages of developing this nest.
Autumn is the season of trees here in the Northeast. It’s not only the vibrant foliage that makes it so, but also the magnificent structure of trunks and branches revealed as the leaves fall. And then there are all those seeds dropping to the ground—so much promise for regeneration; so much sustenance for wildlife preparing for winter. This piece celebrates that promise, while also marking the one-year anniversary of the release of The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook. In many ways, the book is my attempt to sow seeds of wonder and enthusiasm for nature with the next generation. I’m grateful for the positive reviews it has gotten, new doors and relationships it has opened, and a ranking in the top 400 drawing books for kids on Amazon. To be sure, books on drawing Pokemon, Anime, unicorns and mermaids far outsell it. But perhaps that makes it all the more needed.
As always, thanks for your support.
New workshop: Drawn to Nature, Tuesdays, January 4-25, 2022, Winslow Art Center >>
This class will focus on multiple approaches to capturing nature-related subjects with an eye toward deepening our understanding, appreciation, and connection to the places we live (or visit). Class via Zoom and limited to 14 participants.
One of the best parts of travel is anticipating it. I will be spending a week in Italy in May 2022 teaching a small group travel art workshop—what an awesome thing to look forward to! There are so many things I am curious about; so many things I want to learn now before going. My travel preparations typically begin by making a map. From there I can start to understand the geography, landforms, plant and wildlife communities, and heritage. This base knowledge helps me understand what I’m looking at and dive deeper when I’m on the ground. And then there is the language. How much can I learn in six months? As you can see, there’s much to do and I’m off and running. I hope you will indulge me in my illustrated preparations. And should you want to join me next spring—all the better!
Tips and Techniques- I’m trying out a Hand Book watercolor sketchbook, portrait size 8.25×5.5” for my pre-trip journal. I’ve been reluctant to buy one of these because the paper is only 95lb, but an artist friend recommended it and I took a leap. I’m glad I did- so far so good. When considering what goes into a travel journal, I like to include elements from the place. This may be colors, lettering styles, architectural details, or wildlife. Because I want to become more familiar with European birds, I bought a field guide and plan to sketch some of the birds I’d like to see. Number 1: the Hoopoe– what a crazy, amazing crest and feather striping. More to come!
If you have never been to northern New England in the fall, you must put it on your bucket list and go. Blazing red and orange maples, yellow birch and aspen, and russet beech trees, set off by evergreens paint an extraordinary canvas. This is just about the end of “peak” season, as rain and wind subdue the palette each week. I consider myself lucky to have seen New York’s Adirondacks in a blaze of glory this weekend while at my nephew’s wedding. What a treat—on both counts.
Our list was long last weekend: paint the back porch railing, fix windowsills, repair broken glazing, prime bare trim, rake leaves, mow the lawn, mulch the gardens, brush hog the field edge, clean out the gutter, mount the rain diverter…you get the idea. It was a beautiful fall three-day weekend, perfect for a hike or bike ride, or for getting stuff done. That’s why you didn’t see a blog post and I didn’t pick up my sketchbook until the sun was sinking low on Monday afternoon. I went to a local conservation area, where the recently mown meadow glowed in the late-day light. In the margins that escaped the reaper, I was drawn to milkweed pods, now split open and brittle, their work done too, casting seeds on the breeze.
Tips and Techniques– I’m sure I’ve said this before, but don’t overlook the small stuff. There are so many times when just looking at a single plant proves fascinating. I sketched the milkweed directly in ink with a Micron 02 pen and then added a couple of watercolor washes of yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and cobalt blue. I used a bit of ultramarine, alizarin crimson, and burnt umber for the darkest shadows, stems, and seeds. Sometimes keeping the palette and the subject simple are what make the difference between completing a page or not.
Though the news this week that the Ivory-billed woodpecker, Bachman’s warbler and 21 other species were classified as “extinct” may not have come as a surprise, it was nonetheless disheartening. I pulled several old field guides from my shelf and found these prescient passages: “When man appears, the Ivory-bill disappears. This is not alone due to the destruction of the bird’s haunts but the bird’s shy, retiring nature. Its days are numbered even more surely than are those of the forests it inhabits” (What Bird is That? by Frank Chapman, 1941). “Many of its [Bachman’s warbler] former haunts are gone, and the demand for further lumber and drainage bode ill for what is perhaps the rarest of North American warblers” (Audubon Bird Guide, 1949). As these birds join the ranks of species gone forever, it seems right to not only mark their loss, but to pause for a moment to contemplate their once magnificent presence in a wilder America.
Tips and Techniques– While the idea of depicting these birds alive was appealing, I decided to convey their loss and the fact that seeing study skins and mounts is the only way we’ll ever know them. Bird skins (stuffed, unmounted dead birds) exist in many natural history collections and present an incredible way to look closely at bird anatomy, feathers, feet, and beaks. If you have the chance to work from skins, take it. What you learn will help you immeasurably when you paint birds from life.
Did you say Italy? Book the castle and join me in Italy for an incredible, immersive experience of art and exploration, May 2-9, 2022. Get details and come along! Winslow Art Center >