A work colleague surprised me last week when we stepped outside on a chilly afternoon and she declared, “November is my favorite month.” I was taken aback. In my entire life, I have never heard anyone choose November. We talked about what she liked so much: breathing in cold air, deep blue skies at dusk, quiet, Thanksgiving. Since that conversation, I have gone looking for Rosemary’s November. I’ve walked country roads late in the day, listened to geese overhead, and poked around the margins of weedy wetlands. Here’s what I found, and I send it to you with gratitude for following this blog and sharing your kind comments and thoughtful insights all year long. Here’s to November!
Tips and Techniques- Where to begin? I recommend starting with your sketchbook and a pen or pencil and a walk. Out on the roadside, or on a trail, walk for awhile until your mind stops thinking about what you were just doing or what you need to do or all the other things happening in your life. Walk until you start to become more present and begin to notice what’s around you. Then start looking. Look at the plants, watch for wildlife, see what’s happening. Then pick something that intrigues you and sketch it. I first noticed a single goldenrod gall and then saw about 30 more all around it. That’s how this page began. After you have something on your page, walk and look some more. Keep adding things until your page is full or its too cold and you have to go home. Hopefully, those will happen about the same time and you can retreat with a full page of discoveries.
Let’s face it: it’s going to be a long winter. Between the darkness, cold and Covid-19, I figure we’re all going to need a few good books and an extra helping of cake to make it through. So here are my top five book picks for artists, plus a delicious apple-cranberry torte.
My choices include a mix of artistic styles, from the highly precise to the wildly loose, from urban sketchers to nature journalers, each with a distinct approach that has expanded my skills and pushed me in new directions. If you’re looking for holiday gifts or winter reading, consider these with my highest recommendation:
Artist’s Journal Workshop, Cathy Johnson (2011) This thoughtful and comprehensive book unlocked the idea of keeping a journal to record my personal journey as an artist. It expanded my subject matter and approach, and ultimately led me to connect with other sketchbook artists and begin this blog. This book is one of Cathy Johnson’s finest—which is saying a lot, since all of her books are terrific. I love that it includes insights and artwork not only from Johnson, but from other artists as well, which provides excellent variety, inspiration, and examples.
Working With Color, Shari Blaukopf (2019) I’ve been following Shari Blaukopf’s blog for years and this book puts her expertise and artwork close at hand. If you’re not familiar with the Urban Sketching Handbook series, I recommend you seek it out. The series provides practical techniques and lots of examples in a small, handy format. In Working With Color, Blaukopf shares techniques for using watercolor on the go, with special emphasis on color choices and limited palettes. This book is suitable for beginners as well as more advanced watercolor artists. I’m also eager to get a copy of Suhita Shirodkar’s Techniques for Beginners, a new release from the same series.
The Joy of Botanical Drawing, Wendy Hollender (2020) Precision and beauty are key in botanical illustration and Wendy Hollender’s comprehensive book shows you how it’s done. She primarily uses colored pencils and watercolor pencils to create her masterpieces, but I find all of the underlying techniques she uses to be applicable to working in watercolor. This step-by-step guide to drawing and painting flowers, leaves, fruit, and more spells out how to work with basic shapes, develop values, and build up forms. Rather than leaving you overwhelmed, you’ll feel as though you finally understand the techniques and materials needed for botanical illustration. It takes patience and practice to work this way, but the investment will make you a better artist.
Urban Watercolor Sketching, Felix Scheinberger (2014) On the other end of the spectrum from Wendy Hollender, Felix Scheinberger’sstyle is super loose, his color choices bold, his lines wonky and fun. But don’t let that fool you. This guy is also a master of his medium. He provides a concise history of how watercolors are made, explores glazing and wet-in-wet techniques, explains color theory, and encourages you to develop your own style. The book is fun and engaging; I love coming back to it again and again for inspiration.
Explorers’ Sketchbooks, Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert (2016) I am fascinated by men and women throughout history who journeyed far and wide in search of new places and species and recorded their discoveries in sketchbooks. This book is a collection of excerpts from 70 artist-explorers and includes exquisite sketches and paintings they made in jungles, deserts, forests, and mountaintops. The explorer’s theme of my own book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, is inspired by them. If these men and women could work in the most challenging of conditions, we can certainly step outside, put pencil to paper, and begin a lifetime of discovery.
And a few brief mentions… If you are looking for books specifically focused on keeping a traditional nature journal, try Roseann Hanson’sNature Journaling for a Wild Life, Hannah Hinchman’sLittle Things in a Big Country,John Muir Laws’ Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, or books by Claire Walker Leslie. All share techniques and tools to get you started and plenty of ideas and artwork to keep you going.
And finally…Cake, Maira Kalman New York City based artist and author Maira Kalman’s books are quirky and fun and Cake is no exception. She’s teamed up with food writer Barbara Scott-Goodman for a delicious book with seventeen illustrated recipes. May I recommend the Flourless Chocolate Torte?
Your turn: What are your must-haves, game changers, or bed rock books?
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.
You never know what you’ll find out on the roadside. Although I walk the same two-mile loop frequently, few days are ever the same. Subtle changes shift one week into the next, one season into another. Noticing is the art of going.
My recent walks have been in the late afternoon; wind picking up, sun low on the horizon. The flowers and grasses have gone to seed, a few bunches of wild grapes are left for the birds. It’s a good time to capture the moment: October in its final fading days. November is coming fast.
Admittedly, this next page is an unusual addition to this post.I came upon a dead barred owl lying in the grassy margin of the roadside, clearly struck by a car or truck. Daylight was fading fast, but the owl was so absolutely beautiful that I couldn’t let it go. If I didn’t paint it then, the opportunity might be gone. There was only time to capture a fleeting impression of feathers, but that seemed a fitting way to acknowledge the life and the loss.
I love the way autumn builds to its peak color, first slowly, then with bold strokes. The reds and oranges are showstoppers, but it’s the yellows that hold it all together. Birch, walnut, hickory, cottonwood, beech, poplar, aspen, gingko, sassafras—all yellow. But my favorite is the luminous golden leaves of the bitternut, which come into their own in mid-October and quickly sail away like so many paper kites in gusts of wild wind.
Tips and Techniques– An all yellow subject is a bit tricky. The color is so light on the value scale, but you still need to create variations from light to dark for interest and depth. I used aureolin and quin gold, two very transparent yellows, as a base, and added burnt sienna and burnt umber for deeper tones. The shadows are cobalt blue. Keeping the entire palette transparent was important for avoiding heavy or murky yellows.
It’s apple season here in New York; the time for picking apples and drinking cider and making pies. But for sketching, I prefer to leave the perfect apples for others and seek out wild and wind fallen fruit. Like Thoreau, I find almost all wild apples handsome. They are beautiful not in spite of their misshapen and knotted appearance, but because of it.
I recently had the honor of being interviewed by Bethan Burton for an episode of the Journaling with Nature podcast. We talk about my approach to sketching, my love of subjects that are often overlooked, and about my book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook. Everyone should be interviewed by someone as sweet as Bethan. Her soft Australian accent and ability to put you at ease makes the conversation flow and leave you feeling like you’ve gained a friend.
Give a listen here: or search for Journaling With Nature wherever you listen to podcasts. You can find it on Apple, Google, and Spotify.
Fall is here, but the final blooms of zinnias and Mexican sunflowers continue in the garden, along with a tangle of scarlet runner bean and cypress vines. I’m hoping that the remaining tomatoes ripen before we get a hard frost. Perhaps there will be one more journal page to mark the end of the season. But just in case, the last of the show seems well deserving of a late season tribute.
Tips and Techniques– I could have selected only the finest remaining blooms for this sketch, but it wouldn’t have reflected the reality of the tangled mess or plants in various stages of bloom and decay that mark the October garden. So, while you may be tempted to paint a beautiful bouquet (and there’s nothing wrong with that), consider the value of marking the seasons and showing the imperfect reality that is inherent in a fall garden (and life itself).
At 5 o’clock, the sun was already low on the horizon, casting a golden light that would blaze for a short while more and then vanish. After eight hours at my desk, I quickly closed my laptop, picked up my sketchbook, and headed to a nearby preserve to immerse myself in what remained of a perfect fall day. I didn’t walk far before being surrounded by the colors of the season. Dark trunks of old sugar maples cloaked in a perfect glory of yellow, orange, green, and russet lined the old carriage road that marks the boundary of the preserve. I wish I could have taken you along to see the display, but this sketch will have to do.
Tips and Techniques—Sometimes you only have an hour (or less), a perfectly golden hour, in which to make a mark on a page. Tackling a big subject like a line of trees and fall foliage wouldn’t typically be my go-to subject for such a short time. But because it was truly THE subject of the moment, I decided to take the leap. Eliminating the more complicated branches of this scene made it more doable—though I wish I had included just a little more height. I sketched in the trees in pencil and painted the colorful leaves and ground with a waterbrush while on the path. The impression of color and light seemed like the most important element to capture in the moment. Back at home, I added the dark trunks and shadows. The thin border and text were important finishing elements, containing the sketch and anchoring it in time and place.
“I suppose wisdom is to know one’s necessities and not live without them. And this huge silence, with the woods and the ocean together, and the air full of kelp and the sound of the fish hawk and the seagulls and nothing else seems to be something I parish and parch without.” —Margaret Wise Brown, who summered on Vinalhaven from 1938-1952 and authored children’s classics including Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny
The Maine coast is, for many, about lighthouses and lobsters, quaint harbor towns and deep blue-green waters. I like those things, too, but I am drawn to Maine’s rocky coast—and to its islands in particular—for their silent and majestic spruce forests and intimate rocky tidal pools. Here, worlds beyond my own cares open, anchored in the solidity of granite and the rhythm of tides. The cry of the osprey circling overhead, the croak of a heron in the gathering dusk, the occasional rumble of lobster boats are welcome sounds in an otherwise quiet September.
We filled our days with exploration and several exhilarating quarry swims. I tried to paint boats and buildings in my sketchbook but found I could not muster enough interest to do either with satisfaction. So here is my week in sketches and in the particulars that will sustain me until I return.
It’s hard to believe that after six months of staying close to home a planned vacation to Maine is actually going to happen later this month. Yahoo! I’ll be stepping into the world of granite boulders and tide pools before you know it. In preparation for our trip, I did what I often do before leaving home and made a map to set the stage for the sketchbook pages to come. The island of Vinalhaven has a rich history of quarrying and lobster fishing, so I used a monochromatic map from 1859 as my inspiration. I look forward to filling in more of it and turning the page to record new adventures ahead.
Tips and Techniques– I love looking at old maps and thinking about how to use various elements, but I have never made one like this. If it appeals to you, I recommend trying it—it was surprisingly easy and fun. After making an outline of the coast in ink, I gave the entire page (except the buoy) a graded wash of raw umber and burnt umber. With the paint still wet, I placed plastic wrap onto the paper, which created subtle texture. Once the page was dry, I added another graded wash, this time yellow ochre, and again added the plastic wrap. Next, I painted the thick shadow along the coastline with a size 6 brush and then the thin contour lines using a size 2 brush. The text style is drawn from the historic map. After printing the letters with a Micron pen, I added a bit of white gouache to mimic the look of letterpress printing. The lower left is intentionally light so that I can write in it as the trip progresses.