Hatch Out!

The hardened frothy glob attached to a goldenrod stem has sat motionless in our garden since the day I found it and brought it home from the meadow back in January. No change. Nothing happening. I had nearly given up on it. And then, it happened. Hundreds of mini praying mantises emerged from the ootheca. They crowded around the opening, marched up and down the goldenrod stem, and one by one dropped from their home base and wandered into the garden. By evening, nearly all were gone.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen this phenomenon and it was pretty exciting. I hope they find the aphids that are feasting on my poppies and grow up to devour other insects in the garden. Come fall, I’d love to find an adult or two hiding among the sunflowers or laying a frothy glob of eggs for next spring.

Tips and Techniques– Don’t miss the moment! If ever there was a time to have a simple painting set up, this was it. I sat uncomfortably on the edge of a wooden raised garden bed in the noon-day sun, sketchbook and travel palette in hand. I painted as the nymphs emerged, which gave me a long time to watch them and to study the ootheca from different angles. My palette and paper dried too fast in the full sun and I found it challenging to get the right amount of water/paint ratio. Still, I have no regrets. Had I waited for a better set up or a better time of day or a better day, I would have missed it altogether.

Home

Ten weeks of working at home has meant a lot of things, including isolation, quiet, and focus. It has afforded opportunities to more closely observe the unfolding of spring and the comings and goings of birds in and around our property. Every. Single. Day. As you can see from the Bird Map, there’s a lot to watch. We’ve recorded more than fifty different species– some are just passing through, but we see or hear the ones that made the map nearly every day.

There’s a lot of information on this map—too much maybe—but it serves as a useful visual record (click the map to view full size). Bird populations may change from year to year, globally and locally. For example, tree swallows didn’t make this map, though they nested here just last year. They haven’t disappeared, they have simply taken up residence in my neighbor’s nest boxes. Ten years from now, it will be interesting to look back at the Bird Map and see who is calling this place home.

Tips and Techniques– When making a map, I use Google Maps as a reference to get a good aerial perspective. It works whether you are zooming in on a single property or outlining a larger region or country. Begin by sketching a rough outline in pencil and then embellish it with ink or color as you like. Consider whether there are elements that you can add that would lend a unique flavor to the map. The color scheme of the place you are visiting, elements of local art or architecture, indigenous plants or wildlife, or a unique label will help to convey the place you are trying to capture.

Along the Roadside in June

NEW ONLINE CLASS! 
The Artist Sketchbook, Mondays: July 13,20, 27 and August 3.
I am excited to announce that I will be teaching an online Zoom class through the Winslow Art Center in Bainbridge Island, Washington. Visit the workshops page or head to the Winslow Art Center site for details and registration.

Gardens Wild and Planted

It’s hard to imagine a lovelier “garden” in May than the meadow I stumbled upon while hiking at the Martin Van Buren Nature Trail in Kinderhook, New York. The preserve is mostly woodland, with stately oaks and maples that Van Buren himself would have seen more than 150 years ago. But a small clearing in the forest was gloriously golden this week, with masses of yellow flowers that any gardener would be hard pressed to recreate.  

My own gardening efforts began in earnest several weeks ago. Unfortunately, I think I jumped the gun in a restless attempt to get things growing. Either from planting when it was still too cold or lack of regular watering, few of my seeds sprouted. So, I replanted last week and recruited my husband to do the watering. Fingers crossed, you’ll be seeing scenes from the Art Garden in the weeks and months to come.

Tips and Techniques– Gardens offer so much to artists! While flowers in full bloom are favorite subjects for many, consider the possibilities of sketching in the garden throughout the season. From seeds to seedlings to blossoms to faded foliage—challenge yourself to come up with creative ways to showcase what’s happening each month. This year especially, when so many of us are staying home instead of heading out to favored vacation spots, having a garden—or a few pots of flowers—may prove to be just the subject matter you need.

A Prayer in Spring

Oh give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the spring of the year.

— Robert Frost

Under massive oaks and maples: dappled sunlight and hundreds of Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Oh give us pleasure in the flowers today. I had come to the woods feeling heavy-hearted, weary, needing spring. And give us not to think so far away as the uncertain harvest. How well Frost understood his time and ours. Drawing kept me in the moment; later it brought me pleasure again when finishing this page at home. Keep us here—all simply in the spring of the year.

Wishing you the pleasure of flowers.

The Lovely and the Lowly

I broke my home-bound suspension yesterday just to paint magnolias in bloom. I went to a nearby cemetery where I’d seen them previously. I was not disappointed; several large trees were in their full glory. Amidst the quiet of gravestones, their display was enjoyed only by birds and a few passersby.

Later at home, I inadvertently dug up an acorn just starting to sprout in my garden. Though lowly, it struck me that this unfolding life was as lovely as the magnolia. And, thankfully, right in my own backyard.

International Nature Journaling Week is coming up, June 1-7. The week aims to bring together a world-wide community to celebrate and document the beauty and diversity of the natural world. As a lead up, artists and bloggers are sharing their perspectives and artwork each week at NatureJournalingWeek.com. I am grateful to be featured this week with a blog post The Art of Discovery.”  

At Home

Being at home day after day (after day) is hard. I wear the gravity of our times like added weight. How grateful I am for our only visitors, who sing their way into spring with airy lightness. I leave my sketchbook by the window so I can draw birds at the feeder and take it with me on my post work rambles. So, today, I offer you a few birds from my yard in hopes that, for a brief moment, they might bring you the cheer that they have given me.
(Click to view larger: blue jays, goldfinches, bluebirds, palm warblers)

Tips and Techniques– For me, sketching birds from life feels a bit like entering a spinning jump rope. Even though the birds are moving, you have to jump in at some point and commit a pose to paper. Once I’ve done that, the bird has likely moved. So, I either wait until it strikes a similar pose or use binoculars to see markings in greater detail. Little by little, I add to the bird, paying particular attention to the beak and eye. I find that if you get those right, the rest of the bird, even if unfinished, is more convincing. Once the initial sketch is down, I use photos as reference for additional details. I sketched these with pencil (yes, I erased a lot) and colored pencil, with a bit of watercolor on the jays and bluebirds.

The Promise of Yellow

Sometimes, we just need yellow. Like when we’re waiting for spring greens to arrive after winter browns, or when the world has been turned upside down and we need a promise of hope. That’s when a burst of yellow forsythia or daffodils are just exactly right.
Click any image here to view larger.
Tips and Techniques– I love the way petals of forsythia blossoms seem to dance. There is a movement to them that is really fun to draw. But to draw every bloom could be too much. You want the burst of yellow, without so much crowding that you lose the dance. In this case, a spatter of paint added a touch of loose, uncontrolled color that complemented the flowers without overwhelming them.

  • A hard shake of a wet watercolor brush yields big drops (top left);
  • A stiff craft brush or old toothbrush flicked with your thumb results in a tighter concentration of marks (bottom);
  • An drop from an eye dropper about 10 inches above the paper gives big splashy drops.

If you don’t already use spatter in your painting, try it next time you want to enliven your subject or to achieve an effect that a controlled brush can’t.

And here’s more yellow just in case you need it.

Color Play: Brown

You would think that this time of year would be about green. But it’s not. It’s still so very brown here in upstate New York. Sure, we’ve had a few green shoots and buds, but the palette is overwhelmingly somber. I couldn’t bring myself to focus on any particular subject today, so I went outside and embraced brown in all its muted, worn-out, post-winter shades. The result is as much a useful lesson in nature’s variety as it is in color mixing.  

Tips and Techniques– You can make a wonderful variety of browns with just a few colors in your paint palette. My go-to favorites for dark browns and smoky grays are burnt sienna with ultramarine blue and burnt umber with ultramarine. I also like the subtlety of burnt sienna and cobalt blue. You can get some lovely warm browns with burnt sienna or burnt umber with alizarin crimson or quin gold. I also have both raw sienna and yellow ochre in my paint box. Although they seem very similar, yellow ochre leans yellow, while raw sienna leans brown, resulting in shades of green or gray when mixed with blues. If like me you are waiting for green, try some color play of your own.

Spring Arrivals

Early spring is underrated. The splashy colors of daffodils and tulips are still weeks away, as is the return of more prized migratory birds– warblers, tanagers, orioles. The woods, too, show only the slightest hint of green. And yet, despite temperatures that fluctuate between 20 and 55-degrees, between snow and sunshine, spring unfolds in myriad small ways each day. I keep a list of spring arrivals, marking the date and the species. I like to compare my lists from year to year, to anticipate what’s coming next, and to celebrate each small sign of the changing season. It’s not only the resplendent that deserves our applause.

Tips and Techniques– People often comment here about my page layouts, so I thought I’d use this page to try to shed some light on my process.

Picture yourself, faced with a blank page. Then someone hands you a most splendid scarlet mushroom, unearthed from rotting leaves near the wood pile. It goes on the page. You’ve never seen this mushroom before, so you look it up in a field guide and record information about it. Now the page is begun, but what next?

Several days later, while walking down the road, a flock of grackles sits perched on last year’s stubs of corn in the field. It’s the dried stalks as much as the birds that draw you in. They go on the page. Now you have two seemingly unrelated subjects to contend with. Hmmm.

The next day, it snows, bringing flocks of birds to the feeder. There’s no time to draw them, but you make a list. Two days later, its 50-degrees with wind from the south, a fairly good sign that there will be birds that take advantage of the tailwind and come north. They go on the list. Now the page seems to be saying something about early spring, but it needs something more to pull it together. Red maple! Blooming now, it’s just the thing to carry the color of the scarlet cup across the page, so you go in search of it and add a few blooms.

Finally, you add a title “Early Spring Arrivals” to solidify the theme. But there is still room for one more thing: you need to put yourself on the page. Why did you see these things? Because you are teleworking from home and taking more walks while COVID-19 transforms the world. That seems worth noting. And now the page is complete.

Prophet of Hope

Yesterday was overcast and damp, but I went searching for signs of spring along the wooded streamside anyway. “If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year.” Leave it to Thoreau. His timeless wisdom relevant still. And as much of the world shuts down to stem the spread of coronavirus and my state braces for the worst to come, I need that swamp, that skunk cabbage, Thoreau’s insight more than ever. “See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.”

Tips and Techniques– Which came first, skunk cabbage or Thoreau? I typically go out and sketch what I find outside and then follow up with research. I look up some natural history information about what I’ve drawn, and sometimes look for a relevant quote or poem. I’ve been thinking all week about the role of art in times of struggle, and about how to record and express some of what I’m feeling. Finding Thoreau’s quote, written in 1857, could not have been more fitting.