Spring Gems

When you think of spring, what colors come to mind? Though red is not typically on my list, there are several species that wear shades of ruby and garnet that sing out amidst spring’s palette of greens. I went looking for Jack-in-the-Pulpit in a nearby nature preserve and, though I found a few, it was the display of red trilliums on the forest floor that was in its full glory. The following day, the rose-breasted grosbeak, one of my favorite migratory birds, returned to our yard. The male’s beautiful deep red breast is a showstopper. That sent me looking for a few other red standouts to add to this page. How glad I am to capture this priceless display of spring gems!

Tips and Techniques– Once you start looking at color – or looking for a certain color – it’s amazing what you’ll find. Try this: pick your favorite spring color and devote a page of your sketchbook to as many things as you can find that are that color. The subtle variations will help you get to know your paints and give you valuable practice in color mixing.

Song for a May Morning

Why does March seem to go on forever while May is so fleeting? Like ferns unfurling, each moment, each day, transforms woods, field, and wetland, ultimately bringing them to fullness. Today, warblers descend on their journey north, oaks and hornbeams and apples are in bloom; morrells push up through the forest floor; but not for long. A week from now, a fleeting moment from now, they too will be transformed. So, Hail bounteous May as John Milton urges in his Song on a May Morning. Celebrate its fleeting sweetness.

Tips and Techniques– Consider different ways to paint your subject. What’s in focus? What do you want to convey? Although I started this page with the Solomon’s seal and ferns, when the black-throated green warbler appeared, I decided to simplify the ferns and make the birds stand out. Painting the negative space around the plants, rather than each plant individually, helped to unify the page, highlight the greenery, and draw attention to the warblers.

Chickadee Update– Two weeks ago I shared my enthusiasm for chickadees excavating a nest cavity in an old fence post. Sadly, they seem to have selected another nest site. It’s not unusual for birds to consider several locations for nesting before selecting one. I’m disappointed that I won’t be sharing eggs, nest, or young with you. But, it’s still early in the nesting season—I’m sure I’ll find others to sketch.

WORKSHOP THIS WEEK! Ink and Watercolor Basics for Sketchers
Friday, May 14, 2-3:30 PST / 5-6:30 EST
Hosted by Winslow Art Center- Technique Takeaway Series
Virtual via Zoom $40 REGISTER
If you struggle with getting satisfying results with watercolor sketching this workshop is for you. We’ll talk about the most common problems and ways to fix them, and practice various approaches to combining ink and watercolor to build your skills and confidence and produce more satisfying results in your sketchbook.

New Life for an Old Post

An old and increasingly rotted split-rail fence lines the side of our driveway and, as long as you don’t look closely or lean on it, it adds character. Replacing the whole thing is “a project” which, as any homeowner can appreciate, means money, time, and labor. Alas, it’s staying put for now. This week I was delighted to spy a pair of chickadees excavating a nest cavity in one of the posts that no longer has a rail. They’d slip inside, hammer away at the soft interior, and come out with beak-fulls of wood chips. By today, the cavity looks about as deep and wide as they can go without breaking through the walls. I can’t wait to see what comes next and to continue working on this page as the story unfolds.

Tips and Techniques- When you know you have more to come to flesh out a page, it’s worthwhile to think through your layout. You don’t have to plan everything, but you need to give yourself options. Over the next few weeks, I hope to be able to add more to this page, including a nest with eggs, a second chickadee, and dates from excavation to fledging (if they make it that far). By putting everything on one side at the start, I’ve left a lot of room for what comes next. But I’ve also carried a touch of spring green across the page to create a connection right from the start. I look forward to sharing this with you as it progresses.

A Welcome Sight

Whether it’s their sweet song, colorful breast, or way of bobbing across the lawn, seeing robins in springtime is a welcome sight. They spend the winter in small flocks feeding on berries and sheltering in nearby woods, where they blend in well with russet-colored oaks leaves and gray bark. But as the grass begins to green, robins are frequenting my yard more often, probing the soft ground for worms and other insects. They are common birds, yes, but no less deserving of attention, gratitude, and a sketch.

Tips and Techniques– I enjoy doing sketchbook pages like this, where I pick a bird and study it in different postures. I always learn a lot, both in the pencil sketch stage and when painting. My goal is to get the essential shapes and features down, preferably without too much fuss, so that the sketch stays fresh. Repeating the same species forces me to look more carefully. Here’s what I think about: What makes a robin look like a robin (and not another bird of similar size)? How can I get at least a basic amount of information on the page while the bird is moving? How can I use a photo reference without simply copying a photo? How can I let the paint do more of the work—mixing and blending on the paper to add interest?

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.