In the Quiet

No bigger than a small lemon, and with an equally yellow cap, the golden crowned kinglet is a tiny harbinger of spring. Never still for more than a few seconds, it flits busily among the trees, its high-pitched song easier to hear than the bird itself is to find. So I sit quietly, binoculars in hand, and wait. Soon enough, several appear—and disappear, and appear again, in a game of hide and seek that goes on for most of the afternoon. I can’t capture the movement, so I go for the lemon and the bird and the quiet instead, happy to keep this reminder of the day between these pages.

“Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet
but first you must have the quiet.
— Wendell Berry

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Nest Trio

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 jeanmackay.art@gmail.com. Prints are made on archival quality Hahnemuhle Museum Etching paper, 8”x10” and suitable for easy matting and framing.

The Faint Echo of Spring

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!

Return to Snow

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.

Out of the Shadows

Owls are master’s of silence, darkness and shadow, so spotting one is not easy. Painting one is not especially easy either. Still, I wanted to play with the idea of pulling an owl out of shadowy woods using a limited palette of blues and browns– though you’ll see that I added yellow ochre midway through to warm things up. I didn’t set out to paint every detail, but rather to strive for an overall impression. Here’s the finished piece– I took a series of photos along the way to give you a sense how the painting progressed.

I started with a very loose wet-in-wet wash. This stage adds an element of unpredictability to the painting, but also creates some cohesion. As the painting progresses, I’m working background and foreground, adding many subtle washes to develop the forms.

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Painted on Arches 140lb paper, 8×10″

January Birds

Subzero temperatures mean I’m inside, but birds are out in force at our feeders. They start at dawn and come and go or stay all day, eating as much as they can to fuel their survival against the cold. With this abundance of subjects, I have been focused on capturing bird shapes and postures with small, quick ink sketches. The beauty of this exercise is that you don’t invest in any one bird, you are simply training your eyes and hands to work together.

My second focus for the week has been owls, which I have not drawn much before. Barred owls have been calling in the stream-side woods next to our house for weeks. And we caught sight of a great horned owl nabbing a meal (likely a squirrel) near our feeders at dusk. Owls mate in January and February, so I expect to hear more activity in the coming weeks.

click to view larger

Tips and Techniques: I drew the owls from videos, which I tend to like because they convey a bird’s personality and movement better than still photos, yet you can pause and replay if needed. Try drawing directly in ink and not worrying whether you get everything right. Keep your eyes on the bird more than your paper and keep your pen moving. The painted owl is a small study I wanted to try to help me decide whether to do a larger painting. The proportions aren’t quite right, but the negative painting technique worked more or less as I had hoped.

Two Swallows

No turtle doves here this Christmas, and no partridge in a pear tree. Just two tree swallows and a bird house I’m giving as a gift. I started the first painting on traditional watercolor paper and then decided to paint a second to test drive the new Nova series toned paper from Stillman & Birn. Doing the paintings side by side gave me a perfect opportunity to compare papers while painting the same subject using the same materials and techniques. Which do you like for the gift?

Tips & Techniques: The toned paper is 150gsm and labeled suitable for dry media, light wash, and ink. I used white gouache for the breast and regular transparent watercolor for the rest and was surprised at how well the paper took the paint. It buckled only slightly, so I kept the watercolors on the dry side. In contrast, the painting on watercolor paper (Strathmore 400 series 140lb) enabled me to work a little wetter. Here, I let the white of the paper serve as my white and added only pale shadows on the breast. Though the colors are cleaner on the white paper, I like toned paper for the impact of subjects like this that have strong whites. I wish the Nova paper was a little heavier, but I like it enough that I may do a series of birds on it.