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.
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.
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.”
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.
It’s good to see this old sugar maple in our front yard wearing a mantle of greenery again. Moss covered and with new leaves unfolding, it’s tangled mass of old limbs drew me in. After an hour or so, the black flies drove me away.
Tips and Techniques– I started this as an ink drawing and worked until it was quite detailed. I could have, and maybe should have, left it there, with just a light wash of bright green for the leaves. I had that “fork in the road” feeling—not sure whether to add more color or let it be. Sometimes I walk away at that point, coming back later with greater clarity of direction. Sometimes I leap, follow a hunch, take the risk, and hope for the best. What do you do when you reach that fork in the road with a painting?
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!
There are many reasons to appreciate stately, solid oaks. Raking their late-dropping leaves in December is not one of them. Persistent and tenacious, they hang on despite autumn gusts and rain storms that shake other trees bare by October’s end. And yet, as I rake pile after pile, I think: maybe we should be more like oak leaves, resolved to hang on as long as we can. Savoring each day of sun, knowing that the dark and silent winter will come all too soon.
Tips & Techniques– I’m testing a new box of Schmincke watercolors, so I decided to use “negative” painting techniques with this journal page as a way to figure out the range of colors I could get with a triad of Ultramarine Blue, English Venetian Red, and Yellow Ochre. I began with a very loose wet-in-wet wash of those three colors. Once it dried, I began to pick out the shapes of the leaves with smaller, but still very wet washes. You can lay lots of layers on top of one another with this technique to build values, depth and interest. The trick is to stop before overworking it or losing the spontaneity of the original wash.
Here’s how it looked along the way (sorry I didn’t take more photos toward the end; I got absorbed and forgot)…
Get to know your paints! I haven’t used English Venetian Red before, and though it looks similar to Burnt Sienna, it is less transparent and mixes very differently. Look how it becomes more purple when mixed with Ultramarine Blue. Burnt Sienna creates beautiful browns and grays with Ultramarine, a mix I use all the time. The purple toned darks worked nicely for the oak leaves, creating a lively triad with the Yellow Ochre.
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
Seasons unfold, pages evolve. That’s what happened here as I sketched a variety of fall fruits and seeds from the trees in our yard over the last few weeks. It’s all part of learning what’s here on the rural property we moved to in July. There are nice old sugar maples, red and white oaks, black walnuts, cottonwoods, birches, and white pines, with well-placed dogwood, pin cherry, and apple trees. There are many year’s worth of sketches in the trees alone…and you’ll see more in the future, I’m sure.
Tips & Techniques– Just as seasons evolve, your pages can too. While it can be nice to finish a page all at once, sometimes that just doesn’t work. Be patient. Do a little at a time, leave it, come back, and do more. Your most important decision is probably where to place the first object. Avoid the middle of the page, which tends to lead to a dull design and leaves only tight spaces around the center to fill. If you know you have a larger item (e.g., black walnuts vs. acorns), place it sooner than later. You can always find room for small things after the big ones are in place.