At Home

Being at home day after day (after day) is hard. I wear the gravity of our times like added weight. How grateful I am for our only visitors, who sing their way into spring with airy lightness. I leave my sketchbook by the window so I can draw birds at the feeder and take it with me on my post work rambles. So, today, I offer you a few birds from my yard in hopes that, for a brief moment, they might bring you the cheer that they have given me.
(Click to view larger: blue jays, goldfinches, bluebirds, palm warblers)

Tips and Techniques– For me, sketching birds from life feels a bit like entering a spinning jump rope. Even though the birds are moving, you have to jump in at some point and commit a pose to paper. Once I’ve done that, the bird has likely moved. So, I either wait until it strikes a similar pose or use binoculars to see markings in greater detail. Little by little, I add to the bird, paying particular attention to the beak and eye. I find that if you get those right, the rest of the bird, even if unfinished, is more convincing. Once the initial sketch is down, I use photos as reference for additional details. I sketched these with pencil (yes, I erased a lot) and colored pencil, with a bit of watercolor on the jays and bluebirds.

Spring Arrivals

Early spring is underrated. The splashy colors of daffodils and tulips are still weeks away, as is the return of more prized migratory birds– warblers, tanagers, orioles. The woods, too, show only the slightest hint of green. And yet, despite temperatures that fluctuate between 20 and 55-degrees, between snow and sunshine, spring unfolds in myriad small ways each day. I keep a list of spring arrivals, marking the date and the species. I like to compare my lists from year to year, to anticipate what’s coming next, and to celebrate each small sign of the changing season. It’s not only the resplendent that deserves our applause.

Tips and Techniques– People often comment here about my page layouts, so I thought I’d use this page to try to shed some light on my process.

Picture yourself, faced with a blank page. Then someone hands you a most splendid scarlet mushroom, unearthed from rotting leaves near the wood pile. It goes on the page. You’ve never seen this mushroom before, so you look it up in a field guide and record information about it. Now the page is begun, but what next?

Several days later, while walking down the road, a flock of grackles sits perched on last year’s stubs of corn in the field. It’s the dried stalks as much as the birds that draw you in. They go on the page. Now you have two seemingly unrelated subjects to contend with. Hmmm.

The next day, it snows, bringing flocks of birds to the feeder. There’s no time to draw them, but you make a list. Two days later, its 50-degrees with wind from the south, a fairly good sign that there will be birds that take advantage of the tailwind and come north. They go on the list. Now the page seems to be saying something about early spring, but it needs something more to pull it together. Red maple! Blooming now, it’s just the thing to carry the color of the scarlet cup across the page, so you go in search of it and add a few blooms.

Finally, you add a title “Early Spring Arrivals” to solidify the theme. But there is still room for one more thing: you need to put yourself on the page. Why did you see these things? Because you are teleworking from home and taking more walks while COVID-19 transforms the world. That seems worth noting. And now the page is complete.

A most egg-cellent collection

As a follow up to my most recent posts on painting bird eggs from the collection of Frederic Church’s family, I thought you might like this egg-cellent post from NYS Parks & Historic Sites’s blog about how the collection is being cleaned and prepared for exhibition. You’ll get a glimpse of the eggs, learn more about their history, and get a sense of how exciting it is to see them in person. Work on the eggs continues in the state’s conservation lab (which has very limited staff in an isolated environment), but the exhibition, slated for May 9 – November 1, may be subject to delay. View the post>

Small Works of Art

Last week’s post An Extraordinary Collection generated a number of questions about bird eggs. I thought I’d answer them with another egg page and a bit of background.

How eggs are made: It all begins with a female reproductive cell called an ovum. As it travels through the bird’s oviduct, layers of albumen (the egg “white”) and shell membranes are added. When the egg reaches the shell gland, more albumen is added, along with a calcium rich shell. The hard outer shell takes about 20 hours to complete and the whole process takes a day. The egg is then expelled from the bird’s body, and Voila! there it is.

  1. It is illegal to collect bird eggs, so working from museum collections or photos are your best options. Looks for Victorian-era collections in natural history museums. I’ve also seen them in libraries and historical societies.
  2. Practice getting the curve of the egg with just one or two lines. You may want to rotate your paper to help you make the curve. The cleaner the edge, the better.
  3. Some eggs are glossy, and others dull; regardless, leave a highlighted area on the egg to help give it dimension.
  4. Work like a bird. Build up color on the egg in several layers. Start with the “ground” or base color. Then add darker tones and shadows, followed by surface markings.
  5. Build up surface colors and patterns in layers, working from light to dark. A rigger brush is excellent for scrolls, while a spatter brush is most effective for creating random spots.

An Extraordinary Collection

I have had an incredible opportunity this week to draw and paint bird eggs that are more than 135 years old. Even more remarkable is that the eggs were collected by the children of American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church. Until recently, the collection of more than 200 different types of bird eggs has been sitting in a large wooden chest in the attic at Olana, Church’s home overlooking the Hudson River. The eggs were brought out to be re-cataloged and prepared for an on-site exhibit at the Olana State Historic Site near Hudson, New York.

I was invited to take an early look at the collection and quickly noted that many eggs had been mislabeled when they were last cataloged back in the 1960s. Some bird names were misspelled, others were incorrect, and, in a few cases, the bird name has been changed by ornithologists. My work with birds enabled me to provide some useful resources to the conservator, who will work with a small team of experts to prepare the exhibit. Once that happens, the eggs that are displayed will be protected under glass and the rest will return to their crate. In the meantime, I hope to have a few more chances to paint more of this extraordinary collection.

Tips and Techniques- The huge range of colors and markings on bird eggs come from just two pigments. These are combined at different intensities and in different ways as translucent layers of eggshell are created inside the bird. Watercolor makes a perfect medium for replicating this process, as multiple transparent layers can be laid down to create an egg. Egg colors are very subtle and quite variable, so I like to keep a scrap sheet handy to test colors before putting them on an egg. This practice works well for any painting, enabling you to get the right shade and amount of water on the brush before painting with it. Your test sheets may occasionally make nice bookmarks, too.

Hummingbird Muse

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.

Bringing Hummingbirds to Life

Several days ago, I got an unusual text-message from my son, asking how he might help a stunned Anna’s hummingbird that had struck his dorm window. Based on his description and a photo, it didn’t look good. The tiny jewel likely hit the glass at 30 miles per hour. Indeed, despite his best efforts, the bird died several hours later. Yesterday, I visited the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY, and decided to spend time among the hummingbirds in the collection. They, too, were quite dead…and nearly 150 years old. Despite their tattered appearance, specs of red, purple, gold and green flickered on their iridescent throats and backs. My lesson for the week is that, whether dying or dead, it’s hard to bring hummingbirds to life, but it is certainly worth trying.

Click to view larger.