March, March, March

Every year it happens. I arrive at March needing so much more than the month can give. After a long winter, I am desperate to explore and draw and BE outside. I am desperate for the fuel of discovery and growth that sparks my creativity. March never delivers. It is too cold and too wet. I am tired of brown. I am tired of gray. The only thing to do is to forgive myself this artistic low point and wait.

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I went back through my journals from the last few years to compare Marches. The pages are thin and mostly the same– each year a record of small gains: pussy willows in bud, the woodcock’s return, a wooly-bear caterpillar in the driveway. And though spring is behind this year, I am glad to have these pages to remind me that incremental progress will take us out of this March too.

After Audubon

Wings, skulls, feathers, skeletons, legs, specimens, live birds, bird paintings. I’ve got birds on the brain! To prepare for several upcoming workshops I am teaching on drawing birds, I’ve been brushing up on bird anatomy and biology, drawing skulls and bones, and watching and painting birds. Best of all, I made a trip to the New York Historical Society to see Audubon’s Aviary, John James Audubon’s original watercolors for the print edition of The Birds of America (1827–38), engraved by Robert Havell Jr.

Audubons Aviary

At the New York Historical Society, NYC

Though I’ve seen reproductions of Audubon’s engravings many times, I was thoroughly taken by the beauty and mastery of the original paintings. Audubon used a combination of graphite, watercolor, gouache, pastel, and glazing to create hundreds of life-sized birds, each one rendered in minute detail. Among my favorites was a simple painting of a male and female dark-eyed junco and a clay-colored sparrow, rendered with no background.

Back home, I decided to finish a small study of an Eastern Phoebe using the highly detailed approach that Audubon used in his paintings. I applied layers of very dry watercolor with the smallest brush in the arsenal— a size 0 — to complete the details. Thankfully, the phoebe is a very plain bird– I can hardly imagine painting intricate feather patterns on hundreds and hundreds of birds, as Audubon did.

Eastern Phoebe















Compare this sketch with the much looser painting (below) of a phoebe and nest that I did several weeks ago. In this painting, I was trying to convey subtleties of color and light, rather than paint every detail.

Eastern Phoebe and Nest

















Both styles have merit. I like knowing how birds are built; I like being detailed and accurate; but I also like the idea of jumping off from there, of letting some of the details go and allowing the wet paint to do the work. The later approach seems to be more evocative and engaging — and yet, just as elusive and hard to achieve as painting every feather.



I was initially drawn in by the fruit, but how could I resist the ungainly bird? It’s been 29 years since I went to New Zealand, tasted my first kiwi fruit, saw the national bird, and explored North and South Islands for nearly three months. I thought I’d get back there sooner, but the years and the miles have not allowed it. Isn’t it funny how a simple taste, smell, or touch can transport you to places and release memories from long ago? Is it any wonder that drawing (and eating) a kiwi after a prolonged winter and too much time close to home brought me nearly 10,000 miles to the other side of the globe?