Outside, Inside

It’s been mighty cold here this week— the temperature most days hasn’t crept out of the teens—decidedly not outdoor sketching weather. But I did manage a walk in snowy woods, where tracks of squirrels, deer, mice, and beaver gave away the presence of far heartier mammals. I also found this fine turkey feather, which was enough to get me started on this sketchbook page. This weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count, a global count and celebration of birds. I was happy to record 16 species this morning from the warmth of the kitchen, while the thermometer outside read -7 F.

Tips and Techniques– Here my top tips for painting bird feathers, which are trickier than you might think. Practice helps!

1. The Center Vane (Rachis)– Start with this line, keeping your edges clean and tapering from bottom to top. The rachis is cylindrical, not flat, and often casts a slight shadow, which can really make your feather look “right.”

2. Shape– Barbs extend out and upward from the center rachis. Though they are sometimes unlocked at the edge, there should not be gaps at the center; most feathers have crisp edges unless barbs are unlocked.

3. Bottom Barbs– Keep them delicate and downy; wet the paper first and drop paint into it.

4. Color– Even dark feathers are semi-transparent. Avoid overworking. The fewer strokes the better.

5. Shadow– Add if you want to help give dimension, but keep it light.

Note: Feathers are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Sketch them where you find them or return them to the field when you are finished.

Workshop this week! The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook
2/18/21, 5:30-7pm, FREE; ages 10+
Register:  Columbia Land Conservancy
If you like exploring nature or drawing or both, this session is for you! Ask questions and draw along with me as I share some activities and tips from my new book to spark your curiosity. This session is especially suited to the 10+ old artist, explorer, or nature lover — and adults who have wanted to try nature journaling.

Nest Gallery

A tangle in the brush. Strips of woven grape vine and grass. A downy mass of cattails bound with sedges and reeds. No matter where I find them or what they’re made of, I simply find bird nests irresistible. I have been drawing and painting bird nests weekly since November, in part because I’ve been teaching a class on The Art of the Bird, but also because I love the challenge and the beauty of painting nests. So, today, you get a gallery of nests…enjoy! (Click any image to view larger.)

1. Collecting on Paper- These nests are in the collection of the Pember Museum of Natural History, which recently reopened after months of pandemic closure. I spent two hours in front a single glass case, pen in hand, and could easily have gone another two.

2. Vireo- Using ink and watercolor is my favorite approach to rendering a nest. It gives me the satisfaction of drawing and a solid roadmap for adding color.

3. Marsh wren- I did the all watercolor nest as part of a class demonstration. Afterward, I decided to do it again using ink first. Which do you prefer?

4. Black chinned hummingbird- This was another class demonstration with a simpler nest to help participants work on making nests dimensional with light and shadow.

5. Red-winged blackbird- The larger strands of a blackbird’s nest make it easier to weave with paint.

6. A single egg- When my cousin asked me to paint a nest with a single blue egg to celebrate the birth of her first grandchild, I gladly accepted. I did two versions– one with ink and one without– to offer her a choice of styles. And while the due date has come and gone, I’m happy to say that the nest was delivered on time.

New online workshop: The Artist Sketchbook, February 23 through March 16, Tuesdays 6-8pm EST/ 3-5 pm PST. Class limited to 12 participants. Get details >

Running Start

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.

Back to the Drawing Board

What a simple, extraordinary drawing tool a pencil is. Unpretentious. Inexpensive. Humble. Yet, the pencil still manages to be demanding. With no color to hide behind and no tricks up it’s sleeve, the pencil requires focus on line and value to bring subjects to life. Artists refer to “pencil miles” or “the thousand-hour pencil” for good reason. There’s no substitute for drawing practice. The pencil demands that you to put in your time.

Tips and Techniques– I went back to drawing this week because I was trying to gain efficiency in my lines when drawing birds. I wanted to try committing to memory bird shapes, features, and feather groups to make me more adept at sketching when in the field. I found working on blue jays particularly challenging because of the head crest, patterning, and shape of the beak. The most fun part of this page was painting the pencil itself, which seemed especially fitting given the jay-colored Staedtler pencils used (F and 2B).

Cool Beans! I’m thrilled to share the news that The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook has won a 2020 American Graphic Design Award from Graphic Design USA. From more than 10,000 entries, only a small handful of projects were selected as winners. Congratulations and many thanks to Kris Fitzgerald at 2K Design for her award-winning performance and creative excellence in helping bring the book to life!

In the Tangled Mess

Somewhere in the tangled mess that was 2020, I hope you found beauty. I hope you found goodness and light. For me, it was there along the roadside, in the white-throated sparrow feeding on sumac as blustery snow began to fall. It was there in the pandemic, when people cheered for healthcare workers and children sang of hope in unison on separate video screens. It was there in the tangled mess of politics when millions of Americans voted for change. It was there in family, friends, and colleagues who pulled together to pull through. It’s not always visible on first glance, but I like to think it’s always there, somewhere, in the tangled mess.

Wishing you a beautiful Holiday Season and New Beginnings in 2021.

Tips and Techniques– When you are sketching outside, try to capture enough information to enable you to finish the sketch, even if you must take it inside. For this journal page, I began with the shape and posture of the sparrow, which flew off shortly after I started. I sketched the tangled vines for a few more minutes before the wind picked up and snow began to blow. I was hoping the bird might reappear or that the snow would let up but, alas, that was not meant to be. Fortunately, I had enough to convey the feeling of the moment even after it passed.

Mutual Exchange

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.

California Scrub Jay Eggs
Black-chinned Hummingbird Nest

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.

Hide and Seek

In springtime, birds tuck their nests into dense foliage and tangled vines. In fall, I try to find as many nests as I can. It is a game of hide and seek in which the birds always win. Still, I walk in woods and fields and along the roadside, taking new paths, looking from new angles, scanning the trees. I count every nest as a victory; a way to understand the place where I live and the creatures that inhabit it. Alas, it is no easy task. Though I think I am paying attention, here are two recent finds that prove otherwise. I walked past these two nests several times a week all summer and fall without seeing a thing.

Tips and Techniques– Most birds—and their eggs, feathers, and nests—are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The law ensures the sustainability of populations of all protected migratory bird species. Unless you have a permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, you should not collect these things. Instead, sketch them where you find them, take a photo, and leave them in place. In addition, seek out nature centers and natural history museums that have a permit. Their collections are invaluable to educators, researchers, students, and artists.

Feathers

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.

Red-tailed Hawk tail feathers
Miscellaneous contour and flight feathers

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.

Mark your calendar…I have two free Zoom chats coming up in November:
Look, See, Sketch, 11/4, 5-5:45pm (EST)
Art Chat, 11/5, 1pm (EST) / 10am (PST)

Small Star, Big Deal

I’m thrilled to share the news that The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, due out November 1, received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. This professional book reviewing service is a big player in the book world. Over the years, Kirkus has established a reputation for exacting, frank reviews. Earning a Kirkus star is coveted top honor. Like a Michelin guide for books, Kirkus Reviews helps good books get attention and offers booksellers and librarians a way to sort through all the new books published and select the ones they want on their shelves.

The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook will appear in the October 1 issue of Kirkus Reviews Magazine.

I thought you might like a glimpse behind the scenes to see how a book page takes shape from rough idea to final artwork. I wanted the book to have the look and feel of a sketchbook, so I started with thumbnail sketches to consider artwork possibilities, text, and layout. The best thumbnails became more detailed pencil sketches, and then full watercolor illustrations. (Click to view larger.)

Coming Soon! New online class: The Art of the Bird: Eggs, Feathers, and Nests offered at the Winslow Art Center; Tuesdays, Nov 10, 17, 24, Dec 1, 6-8pm (EST). Registration opens later today or tomorrow and will be limited to 12 participants. I’ll also be doing a FREE Art Chat on November 5 at 1pm (EST).

Beach Bonus

I’m not sure what was most exciting: seeing yellow horned poppies in bloom, watching recently hatched killdeer chicks scurrying in the strand line, or sketching on the beach in sunshine while northern skies blackened in advance of a terrific thunderstorm. Just being at the ocean seemed bonus enough. I love this rocky beach in southern Massachusetts. It’s full of speckled granite cobblestones and larger outcroppings of glacial-striated bedrocks. Beachcombing always proves fruitful and the birding is great. What’s especially nice is the pleasure of revisiting it through my sketchbook now that I’m back home in New York.

Tips and Techniques– Glaucous green! Who knew there was such a thing? But sure enough, here it is. While researching beach poppies, I found a poem that described “Her leaves are glaucous-green and hoar…” That led me down a rabbit hole of looking up information on the word “glaucous.” Turns out, glaucous has Latin and Greek roots and describes colors ranging from pale yellow-green to bluish-gray. The Latin name for this poppy is glaucuim flavum (glaucium = green and flavum = yellow). A mix of lemon yellow and cobalt blue are perfect for mixing glaucous greens. Combine and experiment with them for your next blue-green foliage.