Oh, the warm nights of late June and early July, when the spectacular light show of fireflies flashes through the fields! Not just one or two, but hundreds of luminescent beetles signaling to each other in the gathering dark. I caught a single firefly that made its way into the kitchen the other night and watched it flash its bioluminescent message for several hours. But how to capture it on paper? That artistic dilemma led me to throw out my usual arsenal of watercolor techniques and try something completely different. Patterns, color, and abstract firefly fun.
Tips and Techniques: I created this piece with masking fluid and a series of watercolor washes. First, I taped the area around the piece with blue painter’s tape to keep it contained, and sketched out the fireflies and grasses with a black Micron pen. After a wet wash of yellows and magenta, I masked the fireflies. Then began a slow process of layering darker washes, letting them dry, masking grasses, waiting for the mask to dry, and repeating. I probably did about six layers. Once I was satisfied that the blues were dark enough, I removed all the masking fluid and tape to reveal the finished piece. If I were to do it over (and I might), I would mask more yellow after the first wash for a bit more energetic glow.
Colors used: quin gold, aureolin yellow, quin magenta, dioxizine purple, phthalo blue, indrathrone blue, indigo.
I’ve been watching our newest neighbors as they take up residence in our yard. Bluebirds recently fledged from one of our nest boxes and a brief battle for the box was won by a pair of house wrens. There are not really four birds, as depicted, but I wanted to capture the pattern of the pair’s activities during the nest building stage. These poses were repeated over and over as I sketched. You’d think that would have made it easier, but wrens aren’t known for standing still. I switched between using binoculars and picking up the pencil to make the initial drawing, then added color later. I like the way the poses capture the some of the story of the wrens setting up house.
Tips and Techniques– I used a pale non-photo-blue pencil to make my initial sketches of the wrens. This gave me a chance to work on the postures before committing to ink. A regular pencil would have been fine, too, but the blue pencil is easy to erase and cover over with paint. It’s a handy tool for birds and other tricky subjects.
My second tip is for those of you who have nest boxes: be sure to monitor them. Open the box quickly about once a week to check on the nest, eggs, or young. This will give you a good idea of what species are using your boxes, whether they fledge successfully, and whether there are any problems. My bluebird nest became infested with ants and I was able to remove it once the birds fledged so that the box was clean for the next inhabitant. There’s good information about nest box monitoring and a code of conduct here: https://nestwatch.org/
I am frequently a painter of subtlety: of small things that might be overlooked, of browns and blues and layers of green. Not today. Drawn in by the vivid, bold color of these poppies at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, I pulled out a whole new palette from a set of six high chroma colors from QoR to paint them. I have never used any of these colors before and it felt a little like driving a car for the first time– a little nerve wracking and reckless, but also liberating and fun.
Like the poppies, the set of six colors are pure, intense, and saturated. What’s nice is that the colors in the set were chosen to work well together and to produce a full range of colors. I found the only thing missing for this painting was a way to get a good deep green. I added some sap green, but ended up with stems and leaves that are inconsistent and murky. In retrospect, phthalo green might have been a better choice. Here’s the color test I did after the poppies (I know, testing before would make more sense.)
Tips and Techniques– The quality of a color is described by words like hue, value and chroma. Hue is the color itself, as represented on the spectrum of all colors. Value is the relative lightness or darkness of the color, and chroma refers to the quality of the color’s purity, intensity, or saturation. They all make a difference, but what’s really important is to get to know the colors you have in your palette. If you haven’t already, do some color tests of different combinations of primary and secondary colors to see what combinations mix best. If your paintings tend to look flat, it’s likely you need to expand your value range by leaving more lights and pushing the darks.
For the last month, I’ve been watching a robin’s nest that sits on the sill of an eyebrow window at our house. I’ve been able to directly observe everything from four perfect eggs to four pathetic-looking naked chicks to four gaping mouths, begging for their parents to stuff them full of moths and worms. Last Sunday I made this ink sketch, added a bit of color on Monday night, and figured I finish the page later this week. But even when you count your chicks before and after they hatch, it doesn’t mean things will turn out well.
I expected to see four jostling chicks with feathers today and instead found a perfectly empty nest. I checked the calendar, checked my nest records, checked reference books, and checked again. Eleven days…just shy of the 14 to 16 days that it typically takes for nestling robins to fledge. My suspicion is that an owl made off with a nice meal. Although the birds were protected from ground predators, they were otherwise completely exposed, especially as they grew larger and began to overflow the bounds of the nest. It’s an unfortunate fate…unless, of course, you take the owl’s perspective.
Tips: If you are observing nesting birds, it’s a good idea to follow a birding code of conduct to make sure you don’t disturb the birds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch program is a good place to learn and to contribute your findings.
Finding bird nests is something typically reserved for late autumn, when fallen leaves reveal summer’s hidden treasures. But I’ve been lucky this spring. Bluebirds and trees swallows took up residence in nest boxes we put up in April; a robin returned to a nest used last year on an upstairs window ledge; I spied a pair of cardinals making their nest in a hemlock bough; and, just last week, I caught sight of an American redstart as it landed and disappeared into a tangle of shrubbery at the edge of the woods– a tell that led me to discover its well concealed nest. I know there is a lot more nesting going on in the surrounding woods and field, but it may be autumn before I am able to add more to the map.
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Tips and Techniques– I love making maps and find that it is an excellent way to learn and record information. I made this one so I would have a reference for future years’ nesting activity on our property. I used Google Maps to sketch the aerial view– it’s a great tool for getting the basics of the landscape geography you want to record. Once I had the map laid out, I added the nest, using a photo of the actual nest so as not to disturb the birds. I had been hoping an egg or two would have already been laid, but because I was a bit too early, I decided to add the eggs for each bird as a separate element. I used the Princeton Field Guide Nest, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds by Paul Baicich and Colin Harrison as a reference, as well as an atypically oblong robin’s egg found abandoned near our driveway.