The Gift of Magnolias

How we covet the first big flowering of the season! An explosion of white against still-gray trees.

“…The whiteness is a gift.
Soft, and slow, it opens
on the limbs. Watch it so.”
The Magnolia, Richard Lambert

Magnolias are among the most primitive flowering plants, dating to 90 million years ago. I like to think of them blossoming among dinosaurs and, millennia later, emperors and ordinary folks in their native Japan. We should have a holiday to celebrate them, or at least a picnic under a canopy of petals.

Tips and Techniques- I must admit that when I started drawing these blooms, I wasn’t sure where this page was headed. Only after I put in a pale background to pop out the flowers, did I realize that I was headed for a more involved negative painting with additional layers of blossoms and paint. So my advice this week is to be open to different ways of handling your subject. Go where the painting tells you to go. Experiment every now and then. Sometimes you’ll end up with a mess. But you’ll just as likely learn something new or end up with a gem.

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.

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.

Dark Beauty

The sun fades quickly on December afternoons, dipping below the horizon not long after 4pm. Even after a lifetime of Decembers, it still surprises me how short these days are. But the silver lining comes once the sky begins to darken. Then, in the clarity of cold winter air, the bare branches of trees silhouetted against the backdrop of blue and pink, deep purple, and inky black create a singular beauty. These darkest days will soon pass, but while they last, I’ll cherish this silent and remarkable view.

Tips and Techniques– To achieve the deep colors of this painting, I used indathrone blue and Winsor violet, a bit of indigo and ultramarine, and a dash of aureolin yellow on the tree. I drew the maple first to map out the structure of the painting and then spattered masking fluid. After a wet-in-wet wash of the main colors, I added a bit more spatter and then began to pick out the trunk and branches. Starting with the branches that are in front and adding more and more with successive layers, the painting slowly gained depth. I added the details on the tree trunk and a final spatter of white gouache to finish the piece.

GOOD NEWS: The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook is back in stock! Take 25% off any purchase at Tumblehome Books until December 15th with code ty25. Thank you!

MORE GOOD NEWS: I am doing a free workshop Sketching Through the Winter on Friday, December 18, 1-2:30pm (PST) / 4-5:30pm (EST) as part of a series of free holiday events and paint-alongs at the Winslow Art Center. Check out the lineup of great programs and sign up!

Autumn Trio

More than half of the autumn leaves are on the ground now where I live, which means two things: lots of raking and beautiful colors littering the woods. It doesn’t take long for leaves to dry out and fade, so I have forsaken the rake in favor of the paint brush. A good choice, don’t you think?

Tips and Techniques– Leaf “portraits” like this are a good way to practice painting skills. They force you to work on getting crisp edges, mix subtle color variations, and use both wet-in-wet and dry brush techniques. I started with a light pencil drawing and then a wet-in-wet wash to establish the lightest colors and define the shapes. I continued with three or four more layers to deepen and adjust the colors and add texture. Adding a shadow gives these a bit more dimension. There are a lot of leaves out there to choose from—have a go!

Cloaked in Gold

I love the way autumn builds to its peak color, first slowly, then with bold strokes. The reds and oranges are showstoppers, but it’s the yellows that hold it all together. Birch, walnut, hickory, cottonwood, beech, poplar, aspen, gingko, sassafras—all yellow. But my favorite is the luminous golden leaves of the bitternut, which come into their own in mid-October and quickly sail away like so many paper kites in gusts of wild wind.

Tips and Techniques– An all yellow subject is a bit tricky. The color is so light on the value scale, but you still need to create variations from light to dark for interest and depth. I used aureolin and quin gold, two very transparent yellows, as a base, and added burnt sienna and burnt umber for deeper tones. The shadows are cobalt blue. Keeping the entire palette transparent was important for avoiding heavy or murky yellows.  

Golden Hour

At 5 o’clock, the sun was already low on the horizon, casting a golden light that would blaze for a short while more and then vanish. After eight hours at my desk, I quickly closed my laptop, picked up my sketchbook, and headed to a nearby preserve to immerse myself in what remained of a perfect fall day. I didn’t walk far before being surrounded by the colors of the season. Dark trunks of old sugar maples cloaked in a perfect glory of yellow, orange, green, and russet lined the old carriage road that marks the boundary of the preserve. I wish I could have taken you along to see the display, but this sketch will have to do.

Tips and Techniques—Sometimes you only have an hour (or less), a perfectly golden hour, in which to make a mark on a page. Tackling a big subject like a line of trees and fall foliage wouldn’t typically be my go-to subject for such a short time. But because it was truly THE subject of the moment, I decided to take the leap. Eliminating the more complicated branches of this scene made it more doable—though I wish I had included just a little more height. I sketched in the trees in pencil and painted the colorful leaves and ground with a waterbrush while on the path. The impression of color and light seemed like the most important element to capture in the moment. Back at home, I added the dark trunks and shadows. The thin border and text were important finishing elements, containing the sketch and anchoring it in time and place.

Surrounded by Magenta

After a winter of painting with brown and earth-toned pigments, it feels extravagant to use so much magenta. But this particular variety of magnolia had magnificently deep-colored blossoms and I found myself dipping into paint pans that I rarely use. With the tree in full bloom and fallen petals on the ground it was a delight to be surrounding by so much color.

Tips and Techniques– When you are using a strong color like quinacridone magenta, it helps to tone it down. I used yellow ochre and aureolin yellow, which produce some lovely warm shades of pink. Mixing with cobalt blue gave me cooler and darker tones for shaded areas. Test out the reds in your paint box. Red plus yellow doesn’t always give you orange, especially when using cooler reds like alizarin crimson or quinacridone rose. Red plus yellow can produce excellent flesh tones and subtle pinks.

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.”  

On the Solstice

I might prefer sun, but it seems right for the solstice to be overcast and cold. I headed out with my sketchbook this afternoon when the temperatures climbed into the 20s to capture a glimpse of the shortest day. This old sugar maple, overlooking fields and evergreens, has seen its share of turns around the sun. It’s limbs stretched outward and upward from the frozen ground. Stark, against gray skies, it yet possessed a warmth about it that was inviting on this winter day. A solstice tree.


Tips and Techniques– If you prefer sketching plein air, but find temperatures in the teens and twenties a tad cold, you might try sketching in the car. I made this drawing from the comfort of my front seat, parked on the side of the road. Not ideal, but not bad either.