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.
As a follow up to my most recent posts on painting bird eggs from the collection of Frederic Church’s family, I thought you might like thisegg-cellent postfrom NYS Parks & Historic Sites’s blog about how the collection is being cleaned and prepared for exhibition. You’ll get a glimpse of the eggs, learn more about their history, and get a sense of how exciting it is to see them in person. Work on the eggs continues in the state’s conservation lab (which has very limited staff in an isolated environment), but the exhibition, slated for May 9 – November 1, may be subject to delay. View the post>
I have had an incredible opportunity this week to draw and paint bird eggs that are more than 135 years old. Even more remarkable is that the eggs were collected by the children of American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church. Until recently, the collection of more than 200 different types of bird eggs has been sitting in a large wooden chest in the attic at Olana, Church’s home overlooking the Hudson River. The eggs were brought out to be re-cataloged and prepared for an on-site exhibit at the Olana State Historic Site near Hudson, New York.
I was invited to take an early look at the collection and quickly noted that many eggs had been mislabeled when they were last cataloged back in the 1960s. Some bird names were misspelled, others were incorrect, and, in a few cases, the bird name has been changed by ornithologists. My work with birds enabled me to provide some useful resources to the conservator, who will work with a small team of experts to prepare the exhibit. Once that happens, the eggs that are displayed will be protected under glass and the rest will return to their crate. In the meantime, I hope to have a few more chances to paint more of this extraordinary collection.
Tips and Techniques- The huge range of colors and markings on bird eggs come from just two pigments. These are combined at different intensities and in different ways as translucent layers of eggshell are created inside the bird. Watercolor makes a perfect medium for replicating this process, as multiple transparent layers can be laid down to create an egg. Egg colors are very subtle and quite variable, so I like to keep a scrap sheet handy to test colors before putting them on an egg. This practice works well for any painting, enabling you to get the right shade and amount of water on the brush before painting with it. Your test sheets may occasionally make nice bookmarks, too.
I am fortunate to live by a stream and I’ve been especially curious about the ice that forms along it in winter. My favorite formation is the sculpted pillars that drip from exposed roots and fallen limbs at the water’s edge. They are created by a combination of water seeping, dipping, rushing, polishing, freezing and melting. Water is both artist and artwork, creating and sculpting as it flows in an ephemeral streamside gallery.
Tips and Techniques– When you sketch directly from nature, you also experience it in ways that working solely from a photo cannot offer. Frigid wind, rushing water, and awkward footing meant I had about 15 minutes to complete a base drawing and take a reference photo before retreating to the house to paint and do some research. Had I simply taken a photo and sketched entirely inside, my drawing would have been neater, but I would not have looked as carefully or felt so keenly the cold beauty of the stream in winter.
Hummingbirds continue to be my muse this week, with a focus on living birds, instead of trying to bring dead ones to life (Bringing Hummingbirds to Life). Since these little gems won’t return to the northeast for another two-and-a-half months, I watched a video on Explore.org for reference. I also swapped my usual set of watercolor paints here for gouache, which is an opaque watercolor paint that can be layered light on dark.
Tips and Techniques– I wanted to try gouache without a big investment, so I bought Windsor & Newton’s Primary Color Set (primary red, yellow, and blue, black, and white). This meant lots of color mixing, which was good. I don’t have much experience with gouache, so it took a lot of trial and error to figure out how to get the right consistency, as well as how to use white and black (something I never do with transparent watercolor). Although the new medium tested me, it also stretched my thinking. I’ve started a second hummingbird nest painting and I’m eager to keep learning.
There are many lovelier species than insects, but none, perhaps, so inexplicably diverse, strange, and – dare I suggest it – marvelous. Our annoyance with “pests,” of which there are many, and our fear of others easily prevent us from taking a closer look at insects. But how can we fail to marvel at these most successful members of the animal kingdom? No doubt, it is easier to wonder at a museum collection under glass, than to appreciate black flies in May. Still, I invite you to come gasp with me*, if only for a moment, at these incredible creatures.
Tips and Techniques– Drawing insects invites careful observation and study. Most are built of just three basic body parts—head, thorax, and abdomen. Wings and legs are attached to the thorax, when present. Variation on the theme is where the fun is. If sketching bugs is “not your thing,” I recommend starting with prettier species like butterflies and moths. They just may inspire you to move on to dragonflies, beetles and bees.
Surrounded by greenery even in January, what a treat to find this nest, perfectly sheltered in the crotch of a young white pine. A small grove of new trees has grown up in the unkempt neighboring field—a good find for birds looking for hidden places to raise their young. I like to think of new life hatching last summer when the field was golden and the sun was warmer than it is today.
Tips and Techniques– Try sketching while standing up. I drew this nest in pen while standing in the field and painted it later at home. Standing encourages the use of your entire arm, rather than just the hand and wrist, which helps to keep your sketches loose. Sketching in the cold also encourages you to work quickly and not fuss too much.
Today started unseasonably warm—an incredible 60-degrees—but slowly fell back into winter by nightfall. While the sun shone this afternoon and the temperature descended through the 50s, I wandered deep into the field. There, amidst matted goldenrod and thorny weeds, I had an unusually good find: several egg cases laid by praying mantises. Each one may contain as many as 400 tiny mantises. Like me, they will wait for a more lasting warmth, relying on spring to bring the field to life once again.
Many thanks for following Drawn In and for your many “likes” and comments throughout the year. It is quite a remarkable thing to send artwork out into the world. You don’t know where it will land or what people will think of it or who it may touch. But therein lies the simple beauty of it. I’m grateful that you are on the other end of this nebulous network that connects us!
A note about this artwork: I created eight arctic stamps this year as part of a Christmas letter I write each year from the North Pole to several special children. I included the stamps in a different format in the Christmas letter, but thought they made a nice collection when viewed together. Have a wonder-filled and Merry Christmas!
I love days like this: when I go out in the cold and roam through the woods and fields, sketchbook in hand; hopeful. Sometimes I come back with nothing to show. But then there are days like today, when I’ve almost given up, but decide to double back. I head down a new path, find something that strikes me, and begin. Then, I am reminded of how good it is to look, and of how much I like being outside with a pen in hand.
Tips and Techniques– If you are going to sketch outside in winter, I suggest using it as an opportunity to practice sketching directly in pen. Don’t worry about being too precise; put pen to paper and keep it moving. I start by staring at my subject and getting in a focused zone where I’m just looking at the lines and shapes, darks and lights. I work light and loose, trusting what I see more than what I put on the page. Soon, the shapes pull together into recognizable objects. Today, I made a mental note of color, but sometimes a quick photo will provide adequate reference for adding color back at home.