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 Host of Golden Daffodils

Click to view larger

Ten thousand saw I at a glance, tossing their heads in sprightly dance...

Wordsworth’s classic poem of daffodils, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” seems timeless. Who doesn’t appreciate a host of golden daffodils or, later, the memory of them fluttering and dancing in the breeze? They are in their full glory this week in my yard and I am enjoying the show.

#14

The trouble with daffodils– I can only imagine that Wordsworth’s poem flowed more easily from his pen than this painting sprang from mine. The trouble with daffodils is not only that they can be tough to draw but figuring out the shadow colors and getting a full range of values is hard with such a light color. I have spent the last two weeks taking up the challenge, trying all sorts of approaches (with and without backgrounds, grouped and single, loose sketches, detailed sketches) and numerous yellow pigments—with frustratingly little success. But my 14th daffodil was promising, and I pressed on. Below, you can see my color swatches for testing yellow shadows. I found it useful to mix a small amount of violet with various yellows for the shadows and to apply the shadows first, before adding yellow to the flowers. If you have had success painting daffodils, do share your tips and techniques…I’d love to hear them!  

What color are yellow shadows?

Check out upcoming workshops: Spring Into Nature Sketching- For Ages 8+ in April, Ink and Watercolor Basics for Sketchers in May, and Arts and Birding in June.

The Gift of Magnolias

How we covet the first big flowering of the season! An explosion of white against still-gray trees.

“…The whiteness is a gift.
Soft, and slow, it opens
on the limbs. Watch it so.”
The Magnolia, Richard Lambert

Magnolias are among the most primitive flowering plants, dating to 90 million years ago. I like to think of them blossoming among dinosaurs and, millennia later, emperors and ordinary folks in their native Japan. We should have a holiday to celebrate them, or at least a picnic under a canopy of petals.

Tips and Techniques- I must admit that when I started drawing these blooms, I wasn’t sure where this page was headed. Only after I put in a pale background to pop out the flowers, did I realize that I was headed for a more involved negative painting with additional layers of blossoms and paint. So my advice this week is to be open to different ways of handling your subject. Go where the painting tells you to go. Experiment every now and then. Sometimes you’ll end up with a mess. But you’ll just as likely learn something new or end up with a gem.

Spring Begins

Before it unfolds in a grand show of color and song, spring is all subtlety. I go looking for it first in wetlands. There, blackbirds returning from the south are greeted by last year’s matted cattails and the reddening stems of dogwood. The odor of skunk cabbage is pungent; its maroon streaked hoods emerge from the mud, hiding small flowers that feed newly awakened bees. I sketch skunk cabbage every year, but this time I also discovered a patch of scouring rush (Equisetum hyemale), a leafless, hollow-stemmed primitive plant that has survived since the mid-Devonian, 350 million years also.

High temperatures rose into the 60s this past week and a few trees began to bud. From a distance, there is a welcome hint of color in their branches. Up close: tiny flowers and catkins have dusted my desk with a fine yellow powder of pollen, my reward for bringing a few stems inside.  

And so, I bring you the first blush of spring in New York, minus the pollen and the odor of skunk cabbage. (Click the images to view larger.)

I am excited to announce that I am offering a new Technique Takaway at the Winslow Art Center: Ink and Watercolor Basics for Sketchers, Friday, May 14, 2-3:30 PST / 5-6:30 EST. This session is virtual via Zoom, $40. Find out more and REGISTER HERE.

Needing Green

It’s a perennial theme come March: the need for green. The hunger usually drives me to visit a greenhouse for a day of warmth and chlorophyll. Barring that this year, I’m stuck with my houseplants. A poor substitute, to be sure, but it’s nice to paint something that isn’t brown for a change.

Tips & TechniquesHow do you know when you’re finished? That question was posed to me by one of my class participants last week and it gave me pause. I have an intuitive sense about it, but the question forced me to define what I do at the final stages more specifically. In addition to watching this page evolve, consider these questions to evaluate your work at the final stages:

  • Have you developed a full range of values?
  • How’s the composition? Do you want to add anything to strengthen it?
  • Do you want to add text?
  • Would a border pull things together?
  • Did you convey what you set out to?

The Green Palette: Sap green, yellow ochre and Prussian blue are the main colors I used to mix these greens (Prussian and yellow ochre make some nice gray-greens). The darker greens are sap green and ultramarine. The grays are mainly violet and yellow ochre. I added a light wash of aureolin in places to brighten the other greens.

Day after Day

You know the drill. The days blur into weeks and suddenly it’s late February. We’re nearly a year into the pandemic and, although I’m grateful for how fortunate I have been, I’m tired too. My sketchbook typically reflects moments of beauty and discovery, but I thought I should also record the sameness and sentiment of “Just another Covid day.” I was glad for the geese…and the coffee.

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 >