Bringing Hummingbirds to Life

The bird lay dead in my hand, a small and precious jewel given to me by a friend. Fully intact and still dressed in glittering green, it was a rare gift. I’d never held a hummingbird; never studied one so closely. An opportunity like this meant one thing: break out the magnifying glass, ruler, and pencil and get to work.

As an artist, I find observing dead birds enormously helpful when trying to bring them to life on paper. I love the ability to look closely at various features, to study proportions, and to look at feather patterns and feet. A bird in hand lets you see details that a photo and even live birds cannot— like the iridescent feathers on a hummingbird’s throat that appear black unless reflecting light or the length of the primary feathers. As you can see, I didn’t try to enliven my first sketches— these are strictly studies. The birds on the right take flight thanks to the motionless birds on the left (click to view larger).

The Hummingbird Gallery

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About Hummingbirds– Hummingbirds are pretty incredible creatures— they can fly forward, backward, and straight up and down, and buzz around at speeds up to 30 mph. Weighing in at just 3-4 grams, they never-the-less manage to fly more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico each year on their annual migrations from the US and Canada to Central America. There are more than 300 species in the world, twelve in the US, and only one, the ruby-throated hummingbird, in the eastern US. Journey North tracks its annual trek (as well as monarch butterflies and other creatures)…check out the journey.

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Flyover

A small but vocal flock of Canada geese flies over our house every day now. They emerge from the tree line, calling to one another and, it seems, to anyone who will listen. I know better, but still, I hear them implore: look up! The maples will not be golden for long.

Tips & Techniques– Painting birds in flight is challenging—and it takes practice. It helps to study the anatomy of the wing so that you understand its major feather groups. It’s also important to have a general sense of perspective so that you can begin to see how the plane of each wing moves and how they align together. Even then, it’s not easy. In addition to time in the field, watch videos to study flight in slow motion. I made several pencil sketches and marked the angles between wings, head, and tail to try to get the proportion and position right before starting this page.

Nest

I walked out and found the nest in the gravel driveway, not by the step as the poem says, but close enough.
Nest by Marianne Boruch

I walked out, and the nest
was already there by the step. Woven basket
of a saint
sent back to life as a bird
who proceeded to make
a mess of things. Wind
right through it, and any eggs
long vanished. But in my hand it was
intricate pleasure, even the thorny reeds
softened in the weave. And the fading
leaf mold, hardly
itself anymore, merely a trick
of light, if light
can be tricked. Deep in a life
is another life. I walked out, the nest
already by the step.

Poem copyright © 1996 by Marianne Boruch, whose most recent book of poetry is “Poems: New and Selected,” Oberlin College Press, 2004. 

Making the Leap

I’ve been watching this robin’s nest on the window ledge of our new house for the last 10 days and every day I’ve wanted to sketch it. I’ve seen the tiny hatchlings go from half naked and barely opening their eyes to spouting feathers to jockeying each other for position in an overcrowded nest. Still, day after day, more pressing chores related to moving here kept me from picking up a pencil. Then this morning, I decided to get off a quick sketch before going to work, lest I miss the chance. I spent about 15 minutes on this, during which time the bird on the right stood up, stretched its wings, and made a flying leap! What a sight! And what a perfect subject for the start of a new journal and the beginning of a new chapter of my life in a new (very old) house in New York State.
Note: I did have a chance to paint newly hatched birds in this same nest in early June. Robins often raise two broods a year and the birds in today’s sketch are from the second brood. Robins incubate their eggs for 12-14 days and the young take about two weeks to fledge. Both males and females care for the young, feeding them worms, moths, and an assortment of other insects.

Three for the Life List

On my recent boat excursion to Eastern Egg Rock in Maine, both luck and good timing were on my side. There, on this small, rocky island where puffins and terns nest, several razorbills sat on shore in full view. I have always wanted to see these sleek black and white puffin relatives, but because they breed on rocky cliffs in northeastern Canada, they are mostly spotted in winter or when migrating. The razorbill sighting alone would have made for a great day on the water, when we spied a common murre—another bird in the auk family that I had never seen—swimming nearby. Moments later, a fantastic northern gannet careened overhead, circled twice, and flew off out of view. The triple header made watching puffins seem almost ordinary. And, as you can see from my sketch, the poor black guillemot, the most common auk species in Maine, didn’t even make the page.

Puffins!

Downeast Maine is known its rocky coast line, cold waters, abundant lobsters, and maritime heritage. Enter any tourist shop and you’ll also see key chains, mugs, and bags decorated with the colorful Atlantic puffin, which breeds on a handful of offshore islands. The fact that puffins are so well associated with the Maine coast is thanks to the dreams and persistence of ornithologist Dr. Steven Kress. With backing from the National Audubon Society and help from a cadre of student interns, Kress has been restoring puffins to the Maine coast since the 1980s. Absent for more than a century due to extensive hunting and predation, puffins are once again breeding in Maine. (Visit Project Puffin to learn more.)

Click to view larger

The Hog Island Audubon Camp is home base for Project Puffin. During Arts and Birding, the week long workshop that I direct at Hog Island, we take participants to see the puffin nesting colony on Eastern Egg Rock, a small island at the outer edge of Muscongus Bay. From the boat, we photograph, sketch, and delight in watching these “clowns of the sea,” along with a host of other seabirds. Though I made some quick sketches from the boat (a first—thanks to extremely calm seas), I did this page back on land. Three cheers for puffins, seabird restoration, and a week in Maine!

Tips & Techniques– Throw out the black paint in your watercolor set. Instead, try combinations of blue and brown to mix a more interesting dark. Ultramarine blue and burnt sienna, or indigo (which contains some black pigment) and burnt umber produce rich results.

New Beginnings

This is one of those journal pages that pretty much tells the whole story. I’ve been on a crazy ride in the last few weeks with lots of travels, selling a house, buying a house, and tons of work. But as these pages convey, I’m thrilled to have this new beginning and to be landing closer to family, friends, and work when the transition is complete. I’m also grateful to be moving to a restored historic house with a great basement, new roof, and nesting phoebes and robins. Pages of chaos expected in the weeks ahead!

Tips & Techniques– Try using your basic sketching pens for hand layering. I use a Micron 02 or 005 black pen with archival ink for both sketching and lettering, which saves me carrying around a variety of calligraphy pens and inks. Write your text and then and build up the thickness of the letters to add interest.