Surrounded by greenery even in January, what a treat to find this nest, perfectly sheltered in the crotch of a young white pine. A small grove of new trees has grown up in the unkempt neighboring field—a good find for birds looking for hidden places to raise their young. I like to think of new life hatching last summer when the field was golden and the sun was warmer than it is today.
Tips and Techniques– Try sketching while standing up. I drew this nest in pen while standing in the field and painted it later at home. Standing encourages the use of your entire arm, rather than just the hand and wrist, which helps to keep your sketches loose. Sketching in the cold also encourages you to work quickly and not fuss too much.
I am excited to share with you that Watercolor Artist Magazine selected one of my journal pages for its Open Book feature in the October issue. Each issue looks inside an artist’s sketchbook and includes one page and a bit of insight from the artist. The October issue is full of terrific articles on plein air and nature painting, so this is an ideal fit. I’m honored to be included!
The Hog Island Audubon Camp has an incredible lab with hundreds of specimens and bird study skins. What makes it extraordinary is that camp participants and staff have access to it all. Drawers of mothball-laden cabinets reveal many treasures: bird eggs, wings, feet, skulls, and whole birds. I love using the collection to study birds up close and to teach Arts and Birding participants about bird anatomy. This year, I chose two birds that are frequently heard but hard to see in the island’s spruce forest—hermit thrush and black throated green warbler—and used a combination of video and study skins to bring them to life on paper.
I also found the remains of a gull skeleton while hiking and made a careful study of the wing bones, which will serve as a useful reference for sketching living birds.
Tips and Techniques– If you want to improve your bird drawings, I highly recommend studying bird anatomy and feather structure, and looking at stuffed specimens or study skins. Many museums and nature centers have collections that you can request permission to look at. You’ll be able to see key features up close and sketch details that you can then incorporate into subsequent bird artwork.
The rocky coast of Maine is a place shaped by granite and water. It is a landscape of quiet salt marshes, tidal bays, dark spruce forests, and hundreds of islands. It’s a place where the cries of seabirds overhead meet the ethereal songs of forest birds hidden in deep shade; and where people have made a living fishing for cod, haddock, lobsters, and shellfish for thousands of years. I have had the privilege of spending the last two weeks there at the Hog Island Audubon Camp, located on a 330-acre island nature preserve near Bremen. I spent the first week teaching and directing a five-day workshop called Arts & Birding; and stayed a second week for an art sabbatical.
“Use what talents you have, the woods would have little music if no birds sang their song except those who sang best.” – Oliver Wilson
It was a pleasure to have such enthusiastic and talented participants for Arts and Birding. Every day brought new adventures: island hikes, boat cruises to see puffins and other seabirds, intertidal exploration, studies of bird anatomy, osprey banding, and sessions focused on drawing, painting and photography skills. A daily salon gave everyone a chance to share their artwork and photographs in a relaxed and supportive setting.
What follows are my sketch-journal pages from Arts and Birding, with brief comments in the captions (click any image to view larger). Watch for subsequent posts from my arts retreat week.
Live action sketching, watercolor added later.
We practiced using a grid with a combination of scenes and closeups to capture a sense of place.
Moving boat, moving birds! Yikes!
Exploring tidal creatures. Thankfully, they don’t move as quickly as birds.
It’s a treat to eat dessert every night!
I like to give daily sketch prompts to provide additional challenges. Here’s my favorite: do one sketch every hour that takes no more than 5 minutes.
If this tempts you to attend Arts & Birding or other workshops at Hog Island in 2020, mark your calendar now! Arts & Birding is tentatively scheduled for July 19-24 (registration opens October 21, 2019).
If I were to ask you to name the top five birds that you see most frequently and to make a list of birds that are your favorites, I suspect that only a few, if any, would make both lists. My favorites tend to be reserved for birds that are especially colorful (rose-breasted grosbeak), tuneful (wood thrush, winter wren), beautiful (American avocet), or that I see infrequently because they are associated with unique places or habitats. This weekend, I had the opportunity to enjoy two birds in that last category during a trip to the Massachusetts coast.
Bobolinks and least terns are rare treats not only because I see them only about once a year, but because populations of both have been in a free fall for the last 50 years. The number of least terns in North America has declined by 88% since the 1960s; bobolinks declined by 66% over the same period. For both, the loss of breeding habitat is the main culprit. Least terns nest on sandy beaches where they compete with beachgoers and encroaching development; bobolinks need large grasslands and undisturbed fields, which are also ripe for housing developments or where mowing takes place before young leave the nest. I was fortunate to see both least terns and bobolinks thanks to the work of conservation agencies and organizations who are working to protect nesting grounds and stem the downward spiral.
More rare treats ahead: I’m heading to the Maine Coast at the end of this week to begin my annual trip to the Hog Island Audubon Camp. There, I’ll teach Arts & Birding and see Atlantic puffins, which have been brought back from local extinction by the work of conservation biologists stationed at Hog Island. I plan to immerse myself fully in the program and the place, so you may not see another post for a few weeks. I promise to make up for it upon my return.
Monitoring birdhouses gives you a rare glimpse into the often hidden world of nesting birds. It allows an up-close look at nest materials, delicate eggs, and birds at work. I have just two boxes on my property; bluebirds occupy one and tree swallows have taken up the other. In the week ahead, the bluebird eggs will hatch and, hopefully, the swallows will begin laying eggs; and I will have a chance to watch it all unfold.
Tips and Techniques– I experimented this week with using watercolor loaded into a dip pen to write the text. Watercolor doesn’t perform as well as ink, but it certainly works, and it opens up a whole host of color options. If you want to try it, use a brush to create a pool of the color you want and then brush the watercolor onto the nib. You’ll have to reload frequently. Try starting with one color and then altering it with another to create color variation in the letters.
Find information on Nest Box Monitoring at NestWatch.
The glory days of springtime come fast and fleeting. Miss the trillium, and you have to wait a whole year to see it again. Migrating birds come, feed, and leave again while we sleep or work or are otherwise distracted. There never seems to be enough time in my spring; no way to capture it all before the symphony of greens gives way to summer. Still, I’ve managed some quick sketches in the woods and I was fortunate to be home when a pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks showed up at the feeder.
Sometimes it’s February, sometimes March when the red-winged blackbirds return. Regardless, it’s a welcome and exuberant racket of wingbeats and squawking from the marshes and treetops. It doesn’t necessarily mean that spring is here; indeed, today, a flock swarmed over our yard and flew off just as it began to snow. But it means we’ve turned the corner: more light, more days above freezing than below, and more good things to come.
Tips and Techniques– I wanted to zoom in on the shapes of the birds in flight, rather than the details, and let some of the birds merge, the way they do in a flock. To do this, I used a loose wash of ultramarine and burnt sienna to create the black, and tried to drop in a bit of yellow and red before the birds got too dry. I like the way the red merged into the dark mix, creating a dusky purple on some of the wings. I suspect this would work better at a larger size, where you could really get some nice color variation and more mixing right on the paper.
My previous post on tulips left me eager for more reds, though this week, I’m back to birds and words. What better choice for reds than the Northern Cardinal, the most colorful bird at my feeder in winter? But isn’t red just red, you ask? Well, absolutely not. You can see that I’ve experimented with different reds (and yellow) here— mixing combinations of transparent reds in a range of warm and cool tones. Other than alizarin crimson, these aren’t colors I use frequently, so this was a worthwhile experiment.
Tips and Techniques– Here’s the line up of colors at the top: Nickel Azo Yellow, Quin Magenta mixed with Transparent Pyrrole Orange, Vermillion, and Alizarin Crimson. The Vermillion looks heavy because it’s Dr. Ph. Martin’s Synchromatic Transparent Water Color, an intense liquid watercolor that I’ve had in my desk for years, but rarely use. The point here isn’t to go out and buy any of these colors, but to experiment with your own. Try mixing the ones on your palette (or in your drawer) to see how much they will do for you.
Warblers: those ever elusive, but much beloved sprites of the tree tops; flitting about, dashing out and then back again, catching insects on the fly or just daring you to find them amidst the greenery. Capturing the yellow warbler on paper proved challenging, too. Perhaps it is because these perky little birds rarely sit still, so making them pose on paper seemed unnatural. Or maybe it’s that paint pales in comparison with the stunningly bright yellow of this warbler in sunshine. Nonetheless, #4 in my perching bird series is complete and, after several weeks of painting birds, I’m planning to turn my attention to other subjects for a while. (Click image to view larger.)
Tips and Techniques– Yellow can be a devilish color! It seems so light, yet, like other colors, there is a whole range of values from light to dark. Shadows on yellow are also tricky. They sometimes appear greenish or purple or gray. It’s easy to get murky laying shadows on yellow in watercolor. My advice when painting yellow (think daffodils, or lemons, or warblers), is to start lighter than you think. Leave the white of the paper for the brightest areas. Do a few washes to deepen values as needed. Experiment with different shadow tones on a separate test sheet– again, you may not need to go too dark to achieve variety and form.