I’ve been a runner for many years. I’m not particularly good or fast or driven, but I appreciate that running keeps me fit and gets me outside year-round. It also gives me an opportunity to see what’s happening along the rural routes I frequent. I watch for birds, notice roadside wildflowers, enjoy big skies, and frequently catch a glimpse of something that becomes the inspiration for painting. Such was the case last week, when a flock of small birds flitting among a cluster of cattails caught my eye. I went back later and made a preliminary sketch from the car on a frigid afternoon. This gave me a decent running start on this piece, which I then painted at home.
The sun fades quickly on December afternoons, dipping below the horizon not long after 4pm. Even after a lifetime of Decembers, it still surprises me how short these days are. But the silver lining comes once the sky begins to darken. Then, in the clarity of cold winter air, the bare branches of trees silhouetted against the backdrop of blue and pink, deep purple, and inky black create a singular beauty. These darkest days will soon pass, but while they last, I’ll cherish this silent and remarkable view.
Tips and Techniques– To achieve the deep colors of this painting, I used indathrone blue and Winsor violet, a bit of indigo and ultramarine, and a dash of aureolin yellow on the tree. I drew the maple first to map out the structure of the painting and then spattered masking fluid. After a wet-in-wet wash of the main colors, I added a bit more spatter and then began to pick out the trunk and branches. Starting with the branches that are in front and adding more and more with successive layers, the painting slowly gained depth. I added the details on the tree trunk and a final spatter of white gouache to finish the piece.
GOOD NEWS: The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook is back in stock! Take 25% off any purchase at Tumblehome Books until December 15th with code ty25. Thank you!
MORE GOOD NEWS: I am doing a free workshop Sketching Through the Winter on Friday, December 18, 1-2:30pm (PST) / 4-5:30pm (EST) as part of a series of free holiday events and paint-alongs at the Winslow Art Center. Check out the lineup of great programs and sign up!
Among the things I love about teaching is getting to know workshop participants. I enjoy helping them learn new techniques and challenge themselves in order to grow as artists. And I love seeing the artwork they produce. But the exchange isn’t just one-way. My students push me to grow, too. This month, I’m teaching a four-week course focused on bird eggs, nests, and feathers, and it’s definitely forcing me to up my game. Here are two recent paintings I did, based on class assignments and with thanks to an exceptionally talented group of “Art of the Bird” participants.
Tips & Techniques– Both of these paintings benefitted from a slow buildup of layers of watercolor. It’s especially important to have a delicate touch with eggs so that they remain translucent. I usually do a lot of experimenting to find the colors I want. For these paintings, I used combinations of raw sienna with phthalo blue as the main duo for the greens. You can see that I also carried raw sienna into the hummingbird nest, while mixing grays with combinations of raw and burnt sienna with cobalt and ultramarine blue. You might find doing a small mixing chart like this a handy reference for comparing color combinations.
Let’s face it: it’s going to be a long winter. Between the darkness, cold and Covid-19, I figure we’re all going to need a few good books and an extra helping of cake to make it through. So here are my top five book picks for artists, plus a delicious apple-cranberry torte.
My choices include a mix of artistic styles, from the highly precise to the wildly loose, from urban sketchers to nature journalers, each with a distinct approach that has expanded my skills and pushed me in new directions. If you’re looking for holiday gifts or winter reading, consider these with my highest recommendation:
Artist’s Journal Workshop, Cathy Johnson (2011)
This thoughtful and comprehensive book unlocked the idea of keeping a journal to record my personal journey as an artist. It expanded my subject matter and approach, and ultimately led me to connect with other sketchbook artists and begin this blog. This book is one of Cathy Johnson’s finest—which is saying a lot, since all of her books are terrific. I love that it includes insights and artwork not only from Johnson, but from other artists as well, which provides excellent variety, inspiration, and examples.
Working With Color, Shari Blaukopf (2019)
I’ve been following Shari Blaukopf’s blog for years and this book puts her expertise and artwork close at hand. If you’re not familiar with the Urban Sketching Handbook series, I recommend you seek it out. The series provides practical techniques and lots of examples in a small, handy format. In Working With Color, Blaukopf shares techniques for using watercolor on the go, with special emphasis on color choices and limited palettes. This book is suitable for beginners as well as more advanced watercolor artists. I’m also eager to get a copy of Suhita Shirodkar’s Techniques for Beginners, a new release from the same series.
The Joy of Botanical Drawing, Wendy Hollender (2020)
Precision and beauty are key in botanical illustration and Wendy Hollender’s comprehensive book shows you how it’s done. She primarily uses colored pencils and watercolor pencils to create her masterpieces, but I find all of the underlying techniques she uses to be applicable to working in watercolor. This step-by-step guide to drawing and painting flowers, leaves, fruit, and more spells out how to work with basic shapes, develop values, and build up forms. Rather than leaving you overwhelmed, you’ll feel as though you finally understand the techniques and materials needed for botanical illustration. It takes patience and practice to work this way, but the investment will make you a better artist.
Urban Watercolor Sketching, Felix Scheinberger (2014)
On the other end of the spectrum from Wendy Hollender, Felix Scheinberger’s style is super loose, his color choices bold, his lines wonky and fun. But don’t let that fool you. This guy is also a master of his medium. He provides a concise history of how watercolors are made, explores glazing and wet-in-wet techniques, explains color theory, and encourages you to develop your own style. The book is fun and engaging; I love coming back to it again and again for inspiration.
Explorers’ Sketchbooks, Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert (2016)
I am fascinated by men and women throughout history who journeyed far and wide in search of new places and species and recorded their discoveries in sketchbooks. This book is a collection of excerpts from 70 artist-explorers and includes exquisite sketches and paintings they made in jungles, deserts, forests, and mountaintops. The explorer’s theme of my own book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, is inspired by them. If these men and women could work in the most challenging of conditions, we can certainly step outside, put pencil to paper, and begin a lifetime of discovery.
And a few brief mentions…
If you are looking for books specifically focused on keeping a traditional nature journal, try Roseann Hanson’s Nature Journaling for a Wild Life, Hannah Hinchman’s Little Things in a Big Country, John Muir Laws’ Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, or books by Claire Walker Leslie. All share techniques and tools to get you started and plenty of ideas and artwork to keep you going.
And finally…Cake, Maira Kalman
New York City based artist and author Maira Kalman’s books are quirky and fun and Cake is no exception. She’s teamed up with food writer Barbara Scott-Goodman for a delicious book with seventeen illustrated recipes. May I recommend the Flourless Chocolate Torte?
Your turn: What are your must-haves, game changers, or bed rock books?
More than half of the autumn leaves are on the ground now where I live, which means two things: lots of raking and beautiful colors littering the woods. It doesn’t take long for leaves to dry out and fade, so I have forsaken the rake in favor of the paint brush. A good choice, don’t you think?
Tips and Techniques– Leaf “portraits” like this are a good way to practice painting skills. They force you to work on getting crisp edges, mix subtle color variations, and use both wet-in-wet and dry brush techniques. I started with a light pencil drawing and then a wet-in-wet wash to establish the lightest colors and define the shapes. I continued with three or four more layers to deepen and adjust the colors and add texture. Adding a shadow gives these a bit more dimension. There are a lot of leaves out there to choose from—have a go!
Bird feathers- wow! Form, function, and beauty in one perfect package. And so much variety and complexity of patterns that my head is spinning. I’ve been preparing for my upcoming class on The Art of the Bird by gathering resources and reference material and working out painting exercises. Painting these feathers gave me a whole new appreciation for the simplicity of the form and the challenge of rendering them well.
Tips and Techniques– If you’d like to make your head spin with a dizzying array of bird feathers, check out The Feather Atlas. The online image database is dedicated to the identification and study of the flight feathers of North American birds. The feathers illustrated are from the curated collection of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. You can look up birds by species or browse the collection. Check out the owls or the nighthawks for starters- either one will leave you marveling.
Hummingbirds continue to be my muse this week, with a focus on living birds, instead of trying to bring dead ones to life (Bringing Hummingbirds to Life). Since these little gems won’t return to the northeast for another two-and-a-half months, I watched a video on Explore.org for reference. I also swapped my usual set of watercolor paints here for gouache, which is an opaque watercolor paint that can be layered light on dark.
Tips and Techniques– I wanted to try gouache without a big investment, so I bought Windsor & Newton’s Primary Color Set (primary red, yellow, and blue, black, and white). This meant lots of color mixing, which was good. I don’t have much experience with gouache, so it took a lot of trial and error to figure out how to get the right consistency, as well as how to use white and black (something I never do with transparent watercolor). Although the new medium tested me, it also stretched my thinking. I’ve started a second hummingbird nest painting and I’m eager to keep learning.
A single lime. So simple, yet so many decisions. I had made an artist’s first decision: subject matter, but next came choices about style, composition, materials. I knew that once begun, each line or stroke would narrow some possibilities and open others. More decisions would follow: color, value, precision. At long last, I chose two paths—one botanical, the other more abstract. I worked on both at the same time, alternating between them as paint dried, until finally, I had only one final decision: when to stop.
And now, you decide: which appeals to you more?
Tips and Techniques– I did the botanical lime using a combination of colored pencil and watercolor, building up many layers to tone the lime and achieve subtly in the greens. I used negative painting techniques for the other, using mainly phthalo blue and nickel azo yellow. Both paints are fairly intense, transparent, and staining, so the blue did not overwhelm the yellow, as it might have with weaker yellows. This technique works well when there are layered shapes, so I added the suggestion of leaves, stems, and fruit to give it more dimension.
Many thanks for following Drawn In and for your many “likes” and comments throughout the year. It is quite a remarkable thing to send artwork out into the world. You don’t know where it will land or what people will think of it or who it may touch. But therein lies the simple beauty of it. I’m grateful that you are on the other end of this nebulous network that connects us!
A note about this artwork: I created eight arctic stamps this year as part of a Christmas letter I write each year from the North Pole to several special children. I included the stamps in a different format in the Christmas letter, but thought they made a nice collection when viewed together. Have a wonder-filled and Merry Christmas!
My yard is littered with walnuts, the driveway with acorns, the side yard with sugar maple keys. My desk, too, is nearly taken over by tree seeds of all shapes and sizes and in various states of decay. I have been collecting them for the past few weeks in order to make this painting. Collection pages are so much fun to do. Whether seeds or mushrooms or amphibians or moths, I enjoy learning about each species and about the group as a whole. And I enjoy the challenge of making the individual parts come together on paper. This piece is nearly done, but for labeling each of the tree seeds. What script to use is my final decision— as is figuring out what those three wiry balls on the right are (I know the rest—do you?)