I love finding myself at the intersection of art and nature. My passion for those two roads has led me to great places, wonderful people, and to beauty, insight, and mystery. Here, a simple fern in the Lyman Conservatory at Smith College has transported me half a world away to the rain forests of Malaysia. It has made me think about symbiotic relationships and to wish I had taken Latin. It has given me hours of artistic challenge and pleasure. And it has left me both grateful and eager for more.
(click to view larger; top: watercolor and ink in Stillman & Birn “Beta” sketchbook 8.5×11″. Bottom: watercolor on 140lb Fabriano cold press paper 8×10″)
Tips and Techniques: I began these two paintings at the Conservatory, knowing it would be fascinating to take two very different approaches. While layers of paint dried on one, I rotated to the other. I had the major shapes established at closing time and finished both at home. What’s interesting to me is how each conveys such a different part of my experience in the greenhouse: one about being surrounded by layers of greenery, the other about a particularly intriguing fern. So, if there is a lesson here, it may be to consider what you most want to capture or convey when you begin drawing or painting. In essence, What draws you in? And what techniques are best suited to sharing that?
Where to begin? Presented with 3,000 plants in every shade of green and every texture and pattern of leaves, choosing a subject was no small task at the Lyman Conservatory at the Botanic Garden of Smith College in Northhampton, Mass. I spent the day there sketching and generally getting a much needed green fix after months of winter browns. Here’s the first of the pieces I did there, an exotic pitcher plant native to Borneo.
Tips and Techniques: What could be better for practicing how to mix greens? Use house plants or find a greenhouse near you and see how many shades of green you can mix. I used primarily sap green with raw umber and quin rose for the pitcher plants, but burnt sienna made its way into the tops of the pitchers and a lighter mix of sap green and cobalt blue helped the leaves and vines in the background recede. Take care when using reds with greens—mixing the two when wet will give you nice browns, but if you want to keep the red tones, wait until the green has dried and then add a layer of red on top.
I get up early to make the 1.5 hour drive to the small town of Granville, New York, not far from Vermont’s Green Mountains. Arriving just before 10am gives me just enough time to buy a coffee before the doors open at one of my favorite places to sketch: the Pember Museum of Natural History. I make this pilgrimage once a year and I’ve already decided where I’ll spend the next four hours: hovering over the glass and cherry cases of Victorian-era bird nests and eggs. The selection is fantastic: eggs of every size and pattern, from tiny cream-colored hummingbird eggs to the huge streaked egg of the extinct great auk, and rows of woven nests decorated with leaves, lichen, and moss. I’ve drawn a good number of them over the years, so I choose ones I’ve passed over previously, put pen to paper, and begin. Hours later at closing time, it’s just me and the lone curator left in the museum and I’m satisfied…though I already look forward to my return next year.
I sketched this trio of nests in detail using a Micron pen on Fabriano hot press watercolor paper and painted them later at home. I did a fourth in my journal— the nest of the sedge wren, posted last week.
Tips and Techniques: When drawing a nest, spend a few minutes really looking at how it’s made before beginning. There are often interesting bits of materials that you’ll want to highlight. Usually the weave gets tighter in the inner cup, which may also be lined with downy material or feathers. Consider that the bird has already created the masterpiece. Your job is to translate it onto paper. Keep your lines very loose as you start, following the weave of twigs, grasses, or pine needles around the cup-like shape. Once the basic structure and strands of material are roughed in, I typically use negative painting (or drawing) techniques to weave darker shapes and strands underneath lighter ones to develop the complex weave. Pay attention to values! Getting darks and shadows in place will really make your nest take shape.
I will be ordering prints of this painting for sale for $30 (includes mailing). If you would like to order a copy, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Prints are made on archival quality Hahnemuhle Museum Etching paper, 8”x10” and suitable for easy matting and framing.
I found this nest in the collection of the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY, where I spent the better part of a day sketching nests that have outlived their builders by more than a century. Somewhere in the weave of stems lies the faint echoes of a grassy wetland, the calls of birds and frogs, the mix of cool air and warm sunshine, of another springtime. I’ve never seen a sedge wren (also called the short-billed marsh wren), and this is as close as I may come. Can you imagine how such a small bird weaves a ball of a nest with nothing more than a beak?
Tips & Techniques– Include field notes in your journal to make it a good reference for what you discover and learn. When I first saw the label on this nest I didn’t know that there were two distinct marsh wren species: a short-billed and a long-billed. I had seen marsh wren nests that didn’t look quite like this, and a quick Google search explained why—the ones I’d seen were made by the long-billed marsh wren. These two species have different colored eggs, too: white versus mottled purplish brown. Art, discovery, and learning fit together beautifully for me in the pages of my journal. I hope you have opportunities to do the same!
The blackbirds returned two weeks ago– a huge flock of red-winged blackbirds and grackles. They hang out in nearby fields and wetlands, and every few days turn up squawking in the tall trees surrounding our yard, then scatter in a great mass of beating wings. But today, amidst a foot of new snow, they stay. Hunkered down at our feeders, they clean us out twice over. And what could be better: The birds or knowing that, despite the snow, we’re on the other side of winter?
Tips & Techniques: Since these birds were never still for more than a few seconds, I decided to skip the pencil and go direct to watercolor, using a size 5 DaVinci travel brush. If you have a feeder, give it a try: it’s a good way to work quickly, focusing on the general shape of birds in different postures without getting caught up with details.