Why is it that the first native wildflower to bloom each year in the Northeast gets so little fanfare or attention? Could it be its unappealing name– skunk cabbage? Or the fact you have to search for it in wetlands and bottomland forests or along damp streamsides in late-February and March? Or could it be that it doesn’t really signal the end of winter, able, as it is, to thrive when there is still snow on the ground?
Still, I think there is much to recommend skunk cabbage: it’s mottled deep maroon hood which conceals a pineapple-like flower head; it’s ability to generate its own heat; and, best of all, it’s bright green, tightly-rolled leaves that begin to unfurl in April. And now, having dug up a skunk cabbage to study it more closely, I would add to the list its massive root system, which anchors the plant deep in the ground. What more praiseworthy spring wildflower could there be?
Tips and Techniques– Follow your curiosity. Without it, I would not be out in the woods in February or studying the roots of skunk cabbage or painting many of the other subjects that intrigue me. Find what spark’s your interest and follow it.
Note to self: avoid painting at the Lyman Conservatory during the spring bulb show. Truth be told, I only glanced into the rooms that displayed a grand spectacle of colorful tulips and daffodils. They were so crowded with winter-weary visitors that sketching there was impossible. I did, however, eke out a small corner of a greenhouse where a tangle of vine wound its way from floor to ceiling. And, as crowded as it was, I wouldn’t have traded a day lost in that greenery for anything.
Sometimes it’s February, sometimes March when the red-winged blackbirds return. Regardless, it’s a welcome and exuberant racket of wingbeats and squawking from the marshes and treetops. It doesn’t necessarily mean that spring is here; indeed, today, a flock swarmed over our yard and flew off just as it began to snow. But it means we’ve turned the corner: more light, more days above freezing than below, and more good things to come.
Tips and Techniques– I wanted to zoom in on the shapes of the birds in flight, rather than the details, and let some of the birds merge, the way they do in a flock. To do this, I used a loose wash of ultramarine and burnt sienna to create the black, and tried to drop in a bit of yellow and red before the birds got too dry. I like the way the red merged into the dark mix, creating a dusky purple on some of the wings. I suspect this would work better at a larger size, where you could really get some nice color variation and more mixing right on the paper.
My previous post on tulips left me eager for more reds, though this week, I’m back to birds and words. What better choice for reds than the Northern Cardinal, the most colorful bird at my feeder in winter? But isn’t red just red, you ask? Well, absolutely not. You can see that I’ve experimented with different reds (and yellow) here— mixing combinations of transparent reds in a range of warm and cool tones. Other than alizarin crimson, these aren’t colors I use frequently, so this was a worthwhile experiment.
Tips and Techniques– Here’s the line up of colors at the top: Nickel Azo Yellow, Quin Magenta mixed with Transparent Pyrrole Orange, Vermillion, and Alizarin Crimson. The Vermillion looks heavy because it’s Dr. Ph. Martin’s Synchromatic Transparent Water Color, an intense liquid watercolor that I’ve had in my desk for years, but rarely use. The point here isn’t to go out and buy any of these colors, but to experiment with your own. Try mixing the ones on your palette (or in your drawer) to see how much they will do for you.
A spark of red. Bold color after months of winter. Unfortunately, my poor bouquet of tulips drooped within hours of when I purchased it, and well before I had time to paint it. Alas, the grand wilt gave me the perfect opportunity to create this herbarium page inspired by Wendy Hollender’s wonderful book, Botanical Drawing in Color: A Basic Guide to Mastering Realistic Form and Naturalistic Color (2010). It turns out that Emily Dickinson, too, kept an herbarium. Her poem, numbered 978, conveys the essence of may be missed when you think you have another chance, another day, but don’t.
It bloomed and dropt, a Single Noon—
The Flower—distinct and Red—
I, passing, thought another Noon
Another in its stead…
Tips and Techniques– Precision, accuracy and beauty are the hallmarks of natural science illustration. Botanical illustrators like Wendy Hollender, who works in colored pencil and watercolor, provide great insight into techniques used to make highly accurate renderings. While a journal hardly needs to be so detailed, I find it instructive to paint this way on occasion. I began the tulip with a pencil drawing, followed by a very loose wash of watercolor. From there, I used an increasingly dry brush (sizes 2 and 0) to apply more layers of watercolor. Getting a full range of values from light to dark is essential to making the petals take shape.
February in upstate New York is typically cold and cloudy. With two months of winter already past and another two on the horizon before spring arrives, it’s time to head to the tropics or the desert for a midwinter getaway. Except when you can’t. Then, we have to settle for the next best thing: a trip to a greenhouse. I spent yesterday afternoon at the Lyman Conservatory at Smith College in Massachusetts and it felt like paradise. Warmth. Light. Rooms full of greenery. Art supplies in hand. What could be better?
Tips and Techniques– Based on my experience at the conservatory, my tip this week is: don’t give up too soon on half-baked sketches. Painting conditions at the greenhouse were difficult—tight aisles, lots of people, and no way to spread out or relax while painting. I painted both of these pages standing up, and believe me, they were very rough watercolors when it was time to leave. Nevertheless, I had the concept and basic colors down, which enabled me to add details and text when I got home. How many times have you found yourself in the field without enough time to finish? I say: at least get started. Take some notes or a photo and finish later.
“My work is loving the world.”
So begins the poem Messenger, by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, who died this week at the age of 83. Oliver delivered intimate observations of nature and deepened our understanding of life’s essence in few, choice words.
“Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums…”
And though there were no hummingbirds or sunflowers to be found here yesterday, I nevertheless felt compelled to walk down the starkly cold winter road in honor of Mary Oliver and to satisfy my own need to find what beauty might remain along the roadside.
“Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
Standing still in 21-degree weather means mostly frozen fingers. Still, there is no substitute for being present; for being astonished by the cold; by wingbeats of geese overhead; by curled leaves of grasses waving in the wind.