I take the beauty of fall for granted. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate it or that I am not awed by its glory. Only that I take for granted that it will be so, year after year. For those of us who live in the Northeast, it is a given that winters will be cold and long, that spring will burst forth in birdsong and flowers, that summer will be prized for its heat and fullness, and that autumn will complete the year with a cloak of gold.
I painted this page on location with a fellow sketcher who grew up in the Middle East. She marveled at leaves the way people who live in warm places marvel at snow when they see it for the first time. It surprised me; I had never given it thought. So here’s to a fine afternoon sketching and a valuable reminder to be grateful for things I take for granted.
Watercolor, Strathmore- 400 series sketchbook; click to view larger
About the technique– This sketchbook page was done with a watercolor technique known as “negative painting.”
I first painted a wet-in-wet wash of primary colors (ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, and Hansa yellow medium).
When dry, I sketched an outline of the main leaves and began to paint around them with graded washes using combinations of the same three colors to create additional leaf shapes and patterns. Using a simple palette helps to ensure that the layers don’t get muddy.
I continued to add more layers of paint, creating additional detail and a greater sense of depth. It’s kind of a dizzying process and you can easily get lost in it. The trick is stopping before tinkering too much and losing the spontaneous effects of the wet washes.
There is something really satisfying about going out with the most basic of sketch tools: paper and pen. I love the flow of lines, of ink on the page, of forms taking shape. These magnificent old beech trees were perfect subjects. I found the first one late Sunday afternoon on the banks of a river and the second two days later in a cemetery. It took me about an hour working on site to make each drawing. Back at home, I couldn’t resist adding a touch of color to to the page. What about you? What are your go-to artist tools?
European Beech (Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, CT), Micron 02 pen in Stillman and Birn beta sketchbook.
European Beech (In Memoriam Cemetery, Wallingford, CT), Micron 02 pen in Stillman and Birn beta sketchbook.
I anticipate spring’s arrival for most of February, March and April, eager for its fresh greens, new life, and abundant sketching opportunities. It arrives slowly at first, with skunk cabbage, red-winged blackbirds, and daffodils. But by mid-May, it takes off like a rocket and I can’t keep up. I’ve been sketching and painting in snatches of time—10 minutes here, half hour there—due to an especially hectic work and family schedule this month. Here are a few of those snatches:
Click to view larger
The carriage barn at the first home in America of artist John James Audubon in Mill Grove, PA. Click to view larger.
Robin’s nest on the visitor center porch at Weir Farm National Historic Site in Connecticut. Click to view larger.
Like many artists, I want my paintings to turn out well. But that typically means that I sacrifice experimentation for tried and true techniques. Risk vs. Return. At some point, though, I start to feel stale and uninspired, and then I know that it’s time to change the line up and go for risk. Such was the case with painting these birches.
Here, I cast off my usual careful drawing and painting style and tested a variety of watercolor techniques. To achieve background depth, I built up layers of color behind the birches and used plastic wrap and masking fluid to add texture and variety. Here’s what I learned:
It’s time to buy new masking fluid when there’s a glob of congealed goop in the bottle.
Good paper makes a big difference! This is Fabriano soft press 140lb watercolor paper. The layers of paint went on beautifully.
I like precise drawing – and it would have made for better results here. But a less careful drawing freed me to experiment more with painting techniques.
Sharp spines, thick shells, noxious odors — the lengths a tree will go to protect its seed! I found these while exploring a local cemetery in my new hometown.
Alive among the dead, the American chestnut really caught my attention. Once the predominant tree of Eastern forests, they are a rare find today. A fungus nearly killed off the entire species by 1940. In contrast, the ginkgo is an ancient survivor. Native to China, but planted widely in cities, ginkgoes have been on Earth since the days of the dinosaurs. I had never seen the nut before and, as it turns out, for good reason. The female, seed-bearing trees are not planted frequently because of the noxious odor given off when the nut drops to the ground and is crushed. Hickories are widespread in the mid-west and eastern U.S., so they are not hard to come by. The thick husk and hard nut protect an edible seed inside.
This page was done a piece at a time, starting with the chestnuts. I drew them directly in pen on location because the spines were so sharp I could not carry them home. I collected the ginkgo and hickory nuts and sketched them at home. Much of the watercolor was done with a very dry brush to get the detail. I added the text last with a micron 02 pen. (Stillman & Birn Zeta journal)
The last blaze of autumn’s glory is upon us in upstate New York. Gold, crimson, bronze, and green hang on, even after several days of wind and rain. Among the best places to see the show, I knew, would be in one of my area’s oldest and grandest rural cemeteries – Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, New York. Established in early 1848, Oakwood’s monuments are dwarfed by towering oaks, maples, beech, and hickories. How fitting, then, to paint there just two days after a longtime family friend died of cancer. In retrospect, I suppose it was no accident. It was the perfect place to contemplate a life now gone and to take solace in the radiant glory of fall’s last days.
I came upon this sugar maple while hiking at a nature preserve and was quickly drawn in by its spreading lower limbs. Consider what a rare thing it is to see a tree like this. In nurseries and residential yards and farm fields alike, lower branches are commonly lobbed off— for aesthetics or safety or ease of mowing underneath. Grown wild, this beauty’s lower limbs stretch improbably far outward and upward. With most of its leaves already lying in a carpet of orange and brown on the ground, it was easier to see its structure fully and to enjoy the play of light and shadow across its branches. I had less than an hour of sketching time, so I decided to focus on capturing the maple’s form, rather than attempt a full painting. I then added just a touch of watercolor later to suggest the warmth of the late day sun.
I love the sheer mass of this old cottonwood, towering above younger trees in my neighbor’s abandoned field. Less than a year ago, its hollow trunk still supported most of its aging, weighty limbs. But summer storms recently brought a good portion of the giant to the ground.
At first sight, I was struck by its brokenness in the late day sunlight. Only later, I realized my shortsightedness. Trees, like people, can weather many storms—their character often enhanced by years and trials. Sending greenery skyward, they go on living—aged and scarred, but resilient.
Sketched on location in ink; watercolor wash and text added later.
I’ve been weeding around the house and gardens this week, and discovering some unwanted beauties in the process. I pulled the shagbark hickory first – complete with half its outer shell – and started this page with that. Next came the sugar maple, which I found spouting beneath the peonies. I liked the curve of the stem reaching for light, but I liked it better in my journal than in the ground. The page seemed a little spare, so I went looking for something small and discovered the silver maple, just getting started among the peas. There’s more weeding to be done, so perhaps I’ll find more to add in the future—but for now, my work and my page is done.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one drawn in by the burst of blossoms in a nearby locust grove. Once I got up close to sketch, I could hear the drone of hundreds of bees buzzing in the profusion of flowers draping the trees.
These were especially large bumble bees—and I’ll have to go back to make a more accurate identification. Though they were flying about as I sketched, they were too focused on the task at hand to bother with me. Bees are an important pollinator of locusts and beekeepers often plant them to boost honey production.