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.
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.
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.
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.
Outdoors is where the action is when you are a nature sketcher. Yet when the last leaves drop and cold weather sets in, even the best outdoor sketching habits can begin to wane. In years past, my sketchbook often went untouched for weeks in winter. But for the last several years, I have resolved to sketch both inside and out all winter long, and I’ve learned a few things along the way. I’m hoping my top tips will help you keep your sketching habit alive all winter long, too.
1. Over dress, under pack.
It is possible, even fun, to sketch outside in winter. Wearing extra warm layers will give you extra time while sketching. But there is no point in taking a full sketch kit. Pare down to your sketchbook and your favorite pencil or pen.
2. Sketch outside, paint inside.
Even if you only spend 10 or 20 minutes outdoors, being outside will add freshness to your sketches and help you notice what’s happening in nature throughout the year. Snap a photo for color reference or make color notes on your page and paint when you return home. Working this way will help you simplify when painting and will also improve your color memory.
3. Don’t rule out the small stuff.
I used to think I should only paint important subjects or nature subjects or meaningful subjects. But once I gave up that notion, all sorts of possibilities presented themselves. There’s real value in sketching ordinary objects. Not only will this keep you going, but you’ll practice different textures and techniques without the pressure of trying to make a masterpiece.
4. Seek shelter.
Use your car as a mobile studio. You’ll be able to go father to seek out new subjects, and you may even be able to add some color. Just refer to Tip 1 before heading out. Cars are cramped and still get cold. You can also sketch what’s outside your windows. Bird feeders, trees, shadows on snow, and skies make fine subjects.
5. Treat yourself.
No matter how disciplined your sketching practice, if you’re at all like me, you’ll get tired of sketching in the cold. Plan a trip to a local botanical garden, greenhouse, or museum in February. Buy flowers in March (or sooner, if needed).
Try setting a goal for yourself for sketching throughout the winter. Maybe it’s getting outside once a month or once when the temperature dips below 50-degrees (or 40 or 30!). Or consider just completing one sketch each month, or each week. Enjoy what you discover…It will be spring before you know it.
Thanks to everyone who came to my class on Sketching Through the Winter at Winslow Art Center!
Here are a few favorites from the winter archives.
The sun fades quickly on December afternoons, dipping below the horizon not long after 4pm. Even after a lifetime of Decembers, it still surprises me how short these days are. But the silver lining comes once the sky begins to darken. Then, in the clarity of cold winter air, the bare branches of trees silhouetted against the backdrop of blue and pink, deep purple, and inky black create a singular beauty. These darkest days will soon pass, but while they last, I’ll cherish this silent and remarkable view.
Tips and Techniques– To achieve the deep colors of this painting, I used indathrone blue and Winsor violet, a bit of indigo and ultramarine, and a dash of aureolin yellow on the tree. I drew the maple first to map out the structure of the painting and then spattered masking fluid. After a wet-in-wet wash of the main colors, I added a bit more spatter and then began to pick out the trunk and branches. Starting with the branches that are in front and adding more and more with successive layers, the painting slowly gained depth. I added the details on the tree trunk and a final spatter of white gouache to finish the piece.
GOOD NEWS: The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook is back in stock! Take 25% off any purchase at Tumblehome Books until December 15th with code ty25. Thank you!
MORE GOOD NEWS: I am doing a free workshop Sketching Through the Winter on Friday, December 18, 1-2:30pm (PST) / 4-5:30pm (EST) as part of a series of free holiday events and paint-alongs at the Winslow Art Center. Check out the lineup of great programs and sign up!
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.
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.
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.
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.