Top 5 Tips for Sketching Through the Winter

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.

Simple subjects are perfect when sketching in cold weather.

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.

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Dark Beauty

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!

Rosemary’s November

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.

Mutual Exchange

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.

California Scrub Jay Eggs
Black-chinned Hummingbird Nest

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.

Hide and Seek

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.

Along the Roadside…October

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.

Autumn Trio

More than half of the autumn leaves are on the ground now where I live, which means two things: lots of raking and beautiful colors littering the woods. It doesn’t take long for leaves to dry out and fade, so I have forsaken the rake in favor of the paint brush. A good choice, don’t you think?

Tips and Techniques– Leaf “portraits” like this are a good way to practice painting skills. They force you to work on getting crisp edges, mix subtle color variations, and use both wet-in-wet and dry brush techniques. I started with a light pencil drawing and then a wet-in-wet wash to establish the lightest colors and define the shapes. I continued with three or four more layers to deepen and adjust the colors and add texture. Adding a shadow gives these a bit more dimension. There are a lot of leaves out there to choose from—have a go!

Golden Hour

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.

Small Star, Big Deal

I’m thrilled to share the news that The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, due out November 1, received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. This professional book reviewing service is a big player in the book world. Over the years, Kirkus has established a reputation for exacting, frank reviews. Earning a Kirkus star is coveted top honor. Like a Michelin guide for books, Kirkus Reviews helps good books get attention and offers booksellers and librarians a way to sort through all the new books published and select the ones they want on their shelves.

The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook will appear in the October 1 issue of Kirkus Reviews Magazine.

I thought you might like a glimpse behind the scenes to see how a book page takes shape from rough idea to final artwork. I wanted the book to have the look and feel of a sketchbook, so I started with thumbnail sketches to consider artwork possibilities, text, and layout. The best thumbnails became more detailed pencil sketches, and then full watercolor illustrations. (Click to view larger.)

Coming Soon! New online class: The Art of the Bird: Eggs, Feathers, and Nests offered at the Winslow Art Center; Tuesdays, Nov 10, 17, 24, Dec 1, 6-8pm (EST). Registration opens later today or tomorrow and will be limited to 12 participants. I’ll also be doing a FREE Art Chat on November 5 at 1pm (EST).

Fields of Summer

Back in May, I wrote a post about Gardens Wild and Planted, where I wondered whether the home gardener could create anything as lovely as a spring meadow. Here I am again at the end of summer wondering the same once more. I visited this field (and started this journal page) back in July and revisited it last week to see it again (and finish the sketch). My own garden is a fine mix of annuals and perennials, and it has provided plenty of good subject matter for sketching. But it cannot compare with the wilder open fields where an annual mowing is all that is needed to create an entire season of beauty.  

Tips and Techniques– This sketch is a composite of various flowers and grasses in the field. Rather than standing in one place where all of this was in view, I moved from flower to flower to fill the page. I often use this technique when outside because it allows me the freedom to roam freely, discovering and drawing as I go. I sketch directly with a black Micron 02 pen and I may or may not add watercolor on the spot. A small travel watercolor set and water brush work well, though I frequently add more layers of watercolor at home. The text and border come last. Hope you are enjoying some late summer wandering and sketching!