Beautiful form, beautiful color. Is it any wonder that pears have been artistic subjects for ages? From Roman mosaics to Renaissance religious paintings, from woodcuts and engravings of the 17th and 18th centuries to Impressionist paintings in the 19th century– the pear proves a worthy subject.
When I see pears at the market or a farm stand, I can’t resist buying them. I don’t care that much about eating them. Not that a good pear isn’t heavenly. I just feel compelled to paint them. But pears, like apples, are tricky. Seemingly simple, I find it hard to get the form to take shape on paper without overworking it. Like the real thing, one minute the fruit is fresh and the next it’s rotten. Stopping when you’ve got a good thing is key. This painting of seckel pears is right on the edge. And though this is no masterpiece, I’m happy to add my attempt to the fruit’s artistic legacy.
The last blaze of autumn’s glory is upon us in upstate New York. Gold, crimson, bronze, and green hang on, even after several days of wind and rain. Among the best places to see the show, I knew, would be in one of my area’s oldest and grandest rural cemeteries – Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, New York. Established in early 1848, Oakwood’s monuments are dwarfed by towering oaks, maples, beech, and hickories. How fitting, then, to paint there just two days after a longtime family friend died of cancer. In retrospect, I suppose it was no accident. It was the perfect place to contemplate a life now gone and to take solace in the radiant glory of fall’s last days.
I recently went to a demonstration by an artist who specializes in charcoal drawings of figures and drapery. Totally not my interest, truth be told, but the elegance of light on dark paper inspired me to try using toned paper. The results surprised me. I liked the simple, back-to-basic quality of working with just dark (in this case, dark umber) and white to render the Eastern phoebe.
Pulling light out of the toned paper felt like such a magical thing. I wanted to see how it would be to bring a mostly white subject to life– hence, the common tern (below, with a plug for my Arts and Birding Workshop in 2015—registration is open!). Again, the simplicity of form and light really appealed to me. Since I usually work in just the opposite way— building up darks with watercolor on white paper— this change of pace is refreshing and fun.
(Prismacolor colored pencils—white and dark grey, with a touch of yellow and red for the bill, on Strathmore Artagain gray paper)
I came upon this sugar maple while hiking at a nature preserve and was quickly drawn in by its spreading lower limbs. Consider what a rare thing it is to see a tree like this. In nurseries and residential yards and farm fields alike, lower branches are commonly lobbed off— for aesthetics or safety or ease of mowing underneath. Grown wild, this beauty’s lower limbs stretch improbably far outward and upward. With most of its leaves already lying in a carpet of orange and brown on the ground, it was easier to see its structure fully and to enjoy the play of light and shadow across its branches. I had less than an hour of sketching time, so I decided to focus on capturing the maple’s form, rather than attempt a full painting. I then added just a touch of watercolor later to suggest the warmth of the late day sun.
This was one of those weeks where art took a back seat to everything else I needed to cram into my life. So when a few hours presented themselves yesterday, I knew I had to seize the moment. Choosing a fairly simple subject would give me chance to focus…and to finish. I really wanted to complete at least one page and be able to move on. Unfortunately, while I found the common milkweed a joy to draw, it was much more challenging to paint than I had anticipated. What color are those seed pods anyway? Yellowish-green turning to gray-brown with hints of blue and burnt sienna. And how to capture the silky wisps of seeds exploding out and floating on the wind? My first attempt ended in a murky overworked sketch that I finally decided could not be rescued. What you see here, is my second go. And now I can turn the page once again and start a new adventure.
1969. Forty-five years ago, an enthusiastic young birder named Scott Stoner found and kept watch over a red-winged blackbird nest in a field near his home. When eggs and parent birds disappeared one mid-June day, he took it. Scott mounted the nest to a piece of cardboard, signed his name, dated it, and put it on display in a nature museum in his basement. He was 12 years old.
Three weeks ago, I found Scott’s nest. It was still mounted to that piece of now-yellowed cardboard, tucked away in a long-forgotten cabinet in an outbuilding at a local nature center. I was drawn to the beauty of the nest, but also to the date it was collected and to the stories it held. After drawing the nest, I decided to track down Scott Stoner.
That’s how I know about the 12-year-old and the basement museum. As it turns out, Scott pursued a career in conservation, donated some of his basement collection to the nature center years ago, and became an expert bird photographer.
Nest to art, artist to collector: how satisfying to come full circle.
This journal entry is a tribute to eager young naturalists. May they find treasures that spark our sense of wonder for years to come.