The Intersection of Art and Nature

I love finding myself at the intersection of art and nature. My passion for those two roads has led me to great places, wonderful people, and to beauty, insight, and mystery. Here, a simple fern in the Lyman Conservatory at Smith College has transported me half a world away to the rain forests of Malaysia. It has made me think about symbiotic relationships and to wish I had taken Latin. It has given me hours of artistic challenge and pleasure. And it has left me both grateful and eager for more.

(click to view larger; top: watercolor and ink in Stillman & Birn “Beta” sketchbook 8.5×11″. Bottom: watercolor on 140lb Fabriano cold press paper 8×10″)

Tips and Techniques:
I began these two paintings at the Conservatory, knowing it would be fascinating to take two very different approaches. While layers of paint dried on one, I rotated to the other. I had the major shapes established at closing time and finished both at home. What’s interesting to me is how each conveys such a different part of my experience in the greenhouse: one about being surrounded by layers of greenery, the other about a particularly intriguing fern. So, if there is a lesson here, it may be to consider what you most want to capture or convey when you begin drawing or painting. In essence, What draws you in? And what techniques are best suited to sharing that?

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Nest Trio

I get up early to make the 1.5 hour drive to the small town of Granville, New York, not far from Vermont’s Green Mountains. Arriving just before 10am gives me just enough time to buy a coffee before the doors open at one of my favorite places to sketch: the Pember Museum of Natural History. I make this pilgrimage once a year and I’ve already decided where I’ll spend the next four hours: hovering over the glass and cherry cases of Victorian-era bird nests and eggs. The selection is fantastic: eggs of every size and pattern, from tiny cream-colored hummingbird eggs to the huge streaked egg of the extinct great auk, and rows of woven nests decorated with leaves, lichen, and moss. I’ve drawn a good number of them over the years, so I choose ones I’ve passed over previously, put pen to paper, and begin. Hours later at closing time, it’s just me and the lone curator left in the museum and I’m satisfied…though I already look forward to my return next year.

I sketched this trio of nests in detail using a Micron pen on Fabriano hot press watercolor paper and painted them later at home. I did a fourth in my journal— the nest of the sedge wren, posted last week.

Tips and Techniques: When drawing a nest, spend a few minutes really looking at how it’s made before beginning. There are often interesting bits of materials that you’ll want to highlight. Usually the weave gets tighter in the inner cup, which may also be lined with downy material or feathers. Consider that the bird has already created the masterpiece. Your job is to translate it onto paper. Keep your lines very loose as you start, following the weave of twigs, grasses, or pine needles around the cup-like shape. Once the basic structure and strands of material are roughed in, I typically use negative painting (or drawing) techniques to weave darker shapes and strands underneath lighter ones to develop the complex weave. Pay attention to values! Getting darks and shadows in place will really make your nest take shape.

I will be ordering prints of this painting for sale for $30 (includes mailing). If you would like to order a copy, please e-mail me at jeanmackay.art@gmail.com. Prints are made on archival quality Hahnemuhle Museum Etching paper, 8”x10” and suitable for easy matting and framing.

Out of the Shadows

Owls are master’s of silence, darkness and shadow, so spotting one is not easy. Painting one is not especially easy either. Still, I wanted to play with the idea of pulling an owl out of shadowy woods using a limited palette of blues and browns– though you’ll see that I added yellow ochre midway through to warm things up. I didn’t set out to paint every detail, but rather to strive for an overall impression. Here’s the finished piece– I took a series of photos along the way to give you a sense how the painting progressed.

I started with a very loose wet-in-wet wash. This stage adds an element of unpredictability to the painting, but also creates some cohesion. As the painting progresses, I’m working background and foreground, adding many subtle washes to develop the forms.

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Painted on Arches 140lb paper, 8×10″

Two Swallows

No turtle doves here this Christmas, and no partridge in a pear tree. Just two tree swallows and a bird house I’m giving as a gift. I started the first painting on traditional watercolor paper and then decided to paint a second to test drive the new Nova series toned paper from Stillman & Birn. Doing the paintings side by side gave me a perfect opportunity to compare papers while painting the same subject using the same materials and techniques. Which do you like for the gift?

Tips & Techniques: The toned paper is 150gsm and labeled suitable for dry media, light wash, and ink. I used white gouache for the breast and regular transparent watercolor for the rest and was surprised at how well the paper took the paint. It buckled only slightly, so I kept the watercolors on the dry side. In contrast, the painting on watercolor paper (Strathmore 400 series 140lb) enabled me to work a little wetter. Here, I let the white of the paper serve as my white and added only pale shadows on the breast. Though the colors are cleaner on the white paper, I like toned paper for the impact of subjects like this that have strong whites. I wish the Nova paper was a little heavier, but I like it enough that I may do a series of birds on it.

Winter Blues

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep…”

Inspired by Robert Frost’s famous poem, I set out to capture a few favorite trees and darkening skies. I loved playing with the complexity of branches and shapes using the simplest of colors. There’s something about these deep blues that brings out the mystery and beauty of this time of year.

Tips & Techniques– These pieces started with at least six failed attempts to paint trees at night. I began by doing numerous small “test” paintings of silhouetted trees against various skies, but none proved evocative or beautiful. I was ready to throw in the towel when I hit on trying negative painting techniques and finally saw something interesting evolve. So, my tip this week: before investing a lot of time in a big painting, try a few small samples to work out the kinks and test colors. It’s also worth remembering—and I am especially in need of this – sometimes it takes a few failures to get to success. Keep painting!

November Maple

It’s the perfect time of year for painting trees. Bare bones and branches, I like the unobstructed view, when limbs, bark, and shapes are revealed. This old maple in my front yard is interesting from almost any angle. I started mid-afternoon in glowing light but, because the sun faded quickly, it took me several days—and patience waiting for the right light again– to finish.

November Maple, 10″x14”, Watercolor on 140lb Arches cold press paper

Bringing Hummingbirds to Life

The bird lay dead in my hand, a small and precious jewel given to me by a friend. Fully intact and still dressed in glittering green, it was a rare gift. I’d never held a hummingbird; never studied one so closely. An opportunity like this meant one thing: break out the magnifying glass, ruler, and pencil and get to work.

As an artist, I find observing dead birds enormously helpful when trying to bring them to life on paper. I love the ability to look closely at various features, to study proportions, and to look at feather patterns and feet. A bird in hand lets you see details that a photo and even live birds cannot— like the iridescent feathers on a hummingbird’s throat that appear black unless reflecting light or the length of the primary feathers. As you can see, I didn’t try to enliven my first sketches— these are strictly studies. The birds on the right take flight thanks to the motionless birds on the left (click to view larger).

The Hummingbird Gallery

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About Hummingbirds– Hummingbirds are pretty incredible creatures— they can fly forward, backward, and straight up and down, and buzz around at speeds up to 30 mph. Weighing in at just 3-4 grams, they never-the-less manage to fly more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico each year on their annual migrations from the US and Canada to Central America. There are more than 300 species in the world, twelve in the US, and only one, the ruby-throated hummingbird, in the eastern US. Journey North tracks its annual trek (as well as monarch butterflies and other creatures)…check out the journey.