En plein air sounds so much more savvy than painting outdoors. I suppose that’s why artists prefer the French expression, which literally translates “in the open air.” Regardless, working outside is my preferred way to draw and paint. Despite the challenges of sun or wind, changing light, occasional insects, and less than comfortable seating, I love the directness of capturing a scene live. I love the freshness of working on the spot. I love translating experience to paper.
I thoroughly enjoyed the luxury of spending nearly an entire day yesterday painting outside. If you are inclined to paint from photographs instead of en plein air, I highly recommend you give it a try!
I went out with a friend one evening this week to sketch at a beaver pond. The water was dark and still, trees were lay crossways in heaps where beaver had felled them, and a large mud lodge rose on the far shore. But what struck me most about the place was not the pond itself, but the beauty and intensity of bird song in the surrounding woods. Other than a pair of catbirds and the flash of the rose-breasted grosbeak as it darted into the trees, I saw no birds. But I’m good enough at birding by ear to identify the singers. I decided to try to capture the ethereal experience of hearing these birds in the darkening woods.
Seen, but silent were birds of Connecticut on display at Yale’s Peabody museum, where I enjoyed a brief visit on Friday. I had time to do a pencil sketch of these two vireos, which are commonly heard, but seldom seen.
Spring bird migration is at its peak. Every day new birds are arriving. Carried by countless wing beats and winds from the south they come—some to stay and some just to rest and feed before continuing on their journey north. Among my favorites: a single white-crowned sparrow that spent just a few hours in the yard, a rose-breasted grosbeak that stayed three days, and a small flock of white-throated sparrows that skulked in our gardens and under our feeders for nearly a week. Today, they are gone…replaced by the oriole that will nest in my neighbors yard, chimney swifts twittering overhead and, with luck, a warbler or two in the days to come.
White-throated sparrow; watercolor on Fabriano soft press paper, 5×7”
It can be hard to find the time for art when life gets busy. A whole painting or even an entire journal page can seem impossible to undertake. So I made a grid on these pages in the hope that I would be able to fill smaller spaces over the course of several days. As it turned out, I drew the entire two-page spread during an hour-long hike, pausing every so often to do a quick sketch when something caught my eye. Done directly in pen, each sketch took no more than a few minutes. I added color and text back at home.
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Some artistic tips:
Making a grid is a worthwhile exercise, though it did leave me feeling a little boxed in. Make the rules, but feel free to break them, as I did, by going beyond the boxes as you see fit.
Use the grid to your advantage. I found it especially useful in forcing me to put pen to paper without fussing, but I have seen other artists fill grid squares carefully, to excellent effect.
Consider having a unified theme that ties the elements together. Your theme may be a particular place, experience, or even experiments with a single sketching medium.
The risk of a grid is that if one of the elements doesn’t turn out to your liking, the entire page may suffer. That’s fine if you are experimenting and not a perfectionist in your art journal. I like some of the sketches on this page more than others, and I can live with that because my aim was to simply record quick impressions of a particular moment in time.
Page done in Stillman and Birn Zeta journal, with Micron black pen and watercolor at Indian Ladder Farms, New Scotland, NY