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I was drawn to the golden orbs of the horsenettle while hiking last week in an old field on the edge of an orchard. Bright spots of yellow against faded, brown grasses and dried wildflowers, I decided to take a stem home to paint. Upon identification, I was not surprised to learn that the plant is invasive and unwanted, as are many plants that grow in the weedy margins of fields.
Still, I love the way the fruit drapes from the tendrilous vines and there is something ironic, yet masterful in a poisonous plant that protects itself with thorns. Once I painted the horsenettle, I wanted to round out the page with other undesirable beauties of fields and orchards. This trio of moths is found in the Northeast: the yellow-necked caterpillar moth is destructive to apple trees, the larval grapeleaf skeletonizer does just as its name implies, and the fall webworm caterpillar, while not particularly damaging, forms unsightly nests on tree limbs.
“Day after day never fail to draw something which, however little it may be, will yet in the end be much.” — Cennino Cennini c. 1390
It’s comforting to know that people have been struggling to draw and paint well for centuries. Cennini’s advice is just as true today as it was 600 years ago. I’ve spent the last week watching, drawing and painting chickadees, trying to capture the shape, color, and spirit of this little songster. It isn’t easy.
Chickadees are not very cooperative subjects. Unlike finches, which will perch at a bird feeder and eat, chickadees never stick around. At my feeders, they flit to a nearby branch, survey the feeder, swoop in–pause for a second—grab a seed, look up and fly off to eat elsewhere. The whole maneuver takes about six seconds. But to their credit, chickadees are bold. When I stood three feet from the feeder to photograph them, chickadees were among the few birds that continued to feed.
I did these sketches and the small painting below from life and from photos. I have more to do to really capture the bird to my satisfaction, but I am taking Cennini’s advice to heart, hoping that yet in the end, all this practice will amount to much.
Gray. Damp. Cold. It’s been a jolt to go from the brilliant warmth of autumn to chill snow-in-the-air November. Still, I was determined to get out and sketch birds today. I filled the bird feeders. Nothing came. I went to the nature center and walked the trails. Few birds appeared. Cold and defeated, I returned home and took consolation in cinnamon buns and coffee. But I couldn’t resist adding this chickadee to the page. I sketched him from an old photo, which made it a bit challenging to get him to sit just right on the rim of the pan. No matter. I realize that my favorite Sundays are filled with baked goods and art…and so I end the day satisfied.
If donuts don’t immediately strike you as artistic subjects, you’re not alone. I got a few passing glances from the staff of the farm café and bakery when I sat down with my hot cider and bag of donuts and proceeded to paint them. Fortunately, it was an hour from closing time and the café was pretty deserted, so I sat contentedly savoring the quiet moment.
This page illustrates what I like best about keeping an artist journal. Freed from the pressure of making a “finished” piece of artwork, my journal is a place to play and to practice. It’s a place where I learn about all sorts of things, or simply record day-to-day experiences and places. A page of donuts can follow a page of trees or birds or barns…and it’s all good.
Indian Ladder Farms is a much beloved place in our community. Few people I know haven’t picked the farm’s apples in fall, brought their kids to pet baby animals as a rite of spring, or eaten their share of cider donuts over the years. We’ve watched outdoor community theatre under the backdrop of orchard and escarpment, picked out our Christmas trees in winter, and frequented the farm’s gift shop for birthdays and special occasions. Indian Ladder Farms has been in operation since 1915 and it is treasured by generations.
Why I’ve never thought to sketch there escapes me. Maybe it’s that I’m always there for some other purpose, or maybe it’s that I like going when it’s raining and quiet. That changed this week, when I went to Indian Ladder twice—and solely for artistic purposes.
Here are the results of what I hope are many more sketching excursions at the farm. More barns, apples, vistas, and maybe a donut or two are in store.
I wanted practice with perspective and Indian Ladder’s main barns proved a worthy challenge. On my second trip, I focused on the farm’s Flemish giant rabbit. The Flemish giant is a massive breed by any measure, standing about 2 1/2 feet tall, which it does, on occasion, when not bounding around its cage, grooming itself or nibbling at children’s handouts. This was my first time drawing a rabbit and you can see some improvement from left side to right.