A Welcome Sight

Whether it’s their sweet song, colorful breast, or way of bobbing across the lawn, seeing robins in springtime is a welcome sight. They spend the winter in small flocks feeding on berries and sheltering in nearby woods, where they blend in well with russet-colored oaks leaves and gray bark. But as the grass begins to green, robins are frequenting my yard more often, probing the soft ground for worms and other insects. They are common birds, yes, but no less deserving of attention, gratitude, and a sketch.

Tips and Techniques– I enjoy doing sketchbook pages like this, where I pick a bird and study it in different postures. I always learn a lot, both in the pencil sketch stage and when painting. My goal is to get the essential shapes and features down, preferably without too much fuss, so that the sketch stays fresh. Repeating the same species forces me to look more carefully. Here’s what I think about: What makes a robin look like a robin (and not another bird of similar size)? How can I get at least a basic amount of information on the page while the bird is moving? How can I use a photo reference without simply copying a photo? How can I let the paint do more of the work—mixing and blending on the paper to add interest?

Spring Begins

Before it unfolds in a grand show of color and song, spring is all subtlety. I go looking for it first in wetlands. There, blackbirds returning from the south are greeted by last year’s matted cattails and the reddening stems of dogwood. The odor of skunk cabbage is pungent; its maroon streaked hoods emerge from the mud, hiding small flowers that feed newly awakened bees. I sketch skunk cabbage every year, but this time I also discovered a patch of scouring rush (Equisetum hyemale), a leafless, hollow-stemmed primitive plant that has survived since the mid-Devonian, 350 million years also.

High temperatures rose into the 60s this past week and a few trees began to bud. From a distance, there is a welcome hint of color in their branches. Up close: tiny flowers and catkins have dusted my desk with a fine yellow powder of pollen, my reward for bringing a few stems inside.  

And so, I bring you the first blush of spring in New York, minus the pollen and the odor of skunk cabbage. (Click the images to view larger.)

I am excited to announce that I am offering a new Technique Takaway at the Winslow Art Center: Ink and Watercolor Basics for Sketchers, Friday, May 14, 2-3:30 PST / 5-6:30 EST. This session is virtual via Zoom, $40. Find out more and REGISTER HERE.

A Day at the Beach

When March feels like January and the urge to go outside and sketch no longer seems sane, I’m in trouble. I could use a change of scenery and fresh artistic inspiration, but, alas, there’s nowhere to go. So I’ve turned to my collection of beach finds to take me to warmer places and sunnier days. I like imagining whelks and horseshoe crabs crawling on sandy bottomed shores and blue mussels, sea stars, and urchins crammed into rocky cervices. Out there in the Atlantic, summer is just a dream away.   

Tips and Techniques– A collection like this is perfect for rainy days and times when you just want to practice. I decided to sketch directly in pen and use a size 12 round brush to keep this loose and spontaneous. Had I gone for a more precise approach, I’d still be working on it. When you sketch a collection, start with one of the largest objects first. Then add your second and third objects close to it. Build out from there. You can always tuck smaller items into tight spaces or fill gaps in the design.

Outside, Inside

It’s been mighty cold here this week— the temperature most days hasn’t crept out of the teens—decidedly not outdoor sketching weather. But I did manage a walk in snowy woods, where tracks of squirrels, deer, mice, and beaver gave away the presence of far heartier mammals. I also found this fine turkey feather, which was enough to get me started on this sketchbook page. This weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count, a global count and celebration of birds. I was happy to record 16 species this morning from the warmth of the kitchen, while the thermometer outside read -7 F.

Tips and Techniques– Here my top tips for painting bird feathers, which are trickier than you might think. Practice helps!

1. The Center Vane (Rachis)– Start with this line, keeping your edges clean and tapering from bottom to top. The rachis is cylindrical, not flat, and often casts a slight shadow, which can really make your feather look “right.”

2. Shape– Barbs extend out and upward from the center rachis. Though they are sometimes unlocked at the edge, there should not be gaps at the center; most feathers have crisp edges unless barbs are unlocked.

3. Bottom Barbs– Keep them delicate and downy; wet the paper first and drop paint into it.

4. Color– Even dark feathers are semi-transparent. Avoid overworking. The fewer strokes the better.

5. Shadow– Add if you want to help give dimension, but keep it light.

Note: Feathers are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Sketch them where you find them or return them to the field when you are finished.

Workshop this week! The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook
2/18/21, 5:30-7pm, FREE; ages 10+
Register:  Columbia Land Conservancy
If you like exploring nature or drawing or both, this session is for you! Ask questions and draw along with me as I share some activities and tips from my new book to spark your curiosity. This session is especially suited to the 10+ old artist, explorer, or nature lover — and adults who have wanted to try nature journaling.

New! Explorer’s Gallery

Calling Young Nature Explorers! Since the release of The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook in November, families, grandparents, neighbors, friends, and educators have been sharing the book with the special young people in their lives. Now, I’m inviting youth to share the art of their discoveries in the new Explorer’s Gallery in The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook section of this blog.

If you know kids who have been exploring and sketching nature, send photos of their artwork to explorers_sketchbook@jeanmackayart.com. Include the youth’s first name, age and state (e.g., Alice, 10, NY), and watch the gallery for new artwork each week.

Help spread the word! I can’t wait to see and share what young people are discovering!

Keep Looking

You would think that finding the walnut-sized egg case of a praying mantis in a two-acre overgrown field would be like finding a needle in a haystack. And, indeed, it is. I walked deep into the field, following deer trails and battling thorns and waste-high goldenrod stems. I didn’t go out especially looking for the egg cases. I just needed to get out in the cold, to go wandering in a rare moment of sun, during this dark week in American history.

Finding hope in times of unimaginable tyranny and loss seems equally elusive.

But there, amidst a small grove of white pines, among matted goldenrod and tangled thorny wild roses, I spied it: one frothy egg case, and then another. In all, I found six.

So, my simple takeaway—as much for myself as for you: keep looking.

Upcoming Programs:

Technique Takeaway: Improving Your Sketchbook Layouts and Lettering
Friday 1/15/20, 2-3:30pm (PST)
 / 5-6:30pm (EST) $40
Register: Winslow Art Center
This program will offer approaches to thinking about page design and improving your sketchbook page layouts. We’ll also explore ways to add text as a graphic element, or simply as a way to capture additional information and meaning.

The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook
Thursday 1/21/21, 6-7 pm, FREE; ages 10+
Register: Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy
Ask questions and draw along with me as I share some activities and tips from my new book to spark your curiosity. This session is especially suited to the 10+ year-old artist, explorer, or nature lover — and adults who have wanted to try nature journaling.

Captivated

What is it about this giant old sugar maple that has me captivated? I painted the same tree last week, though from a different vantage point, but it still has a hold on me. So, I stand outside in the late day cold trying to untangle the jumble of big limbs. I work the branches and the spaces between them, piecing together how everything fits. I get lost in the lines, shift focus, keep going. Forty-five minutes later, my own limbs are growing stiff.

I could go out tomorrow and begin again.

Sketching Through the Winter
12/18/20 4-5:30 (EST) / 1-2:30 (PST), FREE, via Zoom

Register: Winslow Art Center
Grab your sketchbook and join me for inspiration and techniques for sketching both inside and out throughout the winter.

Nurturing a Sense of Wonder

I’m thrilled to share the news that my book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, is now available. Geared for ages 10+, it invites kids to begin a lifelong journey of nature exploration with ideas, tips, and plenty of space to sketch. Launching a book makes you think about the people and experiences that were critical to launching you— family, relatives, teachers, friends. People who believed in you; people who were hard on you; or, in my case, people who encouraged me not to hide my sketchbooks in a drawer.

My grandmother, more than anyone, is responsible for nurturing my creative tendencies and interest in the Arts. A painter herself, she praised my earliest attempts at drawing and painting. She enrolled me in a plein air painting class for adults when I was just entering high school (I was in WAY over my head). She displayed a clunky clay mask that I made in art class in her living room! She shared her curiosity and enthusiasm and nurtured that in me.

If there are young people in your life, think about ways to nurture their sense of wonder and creativity. If that means giving them The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, wonderful. Better still, add a box of colored pencils, and spend time together discovering how big and beautiful the world is if we only go outside to look.

TO ORDER
Use special discount code “nature25” and receive 25% off from 11/1 through 11/6 when you order from Tumblehome Books. Or order from your local bookseller with ISBN# 9781943431595, or at Amazon.

JOIN ME THIS WEEK ON ZOOM

Look, See, Sketch, 11/4, 5-5:45pm (EST) FREE
Register:
 Tumblehome Books
This Zoom session is for youth and adults alike who enjoy exploring nature or drawing or both. We’ll talk about The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, and you’ll have a chance to ask questions and draw along with me as I share some activities and tips from the book to spark your curiosity.

Art Chat
11/5, 10am (PST)/1pm (EST) FREE

Register: Winslow Art Center
Come talk art and creativity with me and Winslow Art Center Director Martha Jordan.