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.
I appreciate the last vestiges of autumn: curled beech leaves in barren woods; uneaten grapes still hanging from tangled vines; oak leaves that refuse to fall. They hold on until the bitter end. And why not? Why not go for one last day of warm sunshine; one final chance at glorious existence before letting go. Wouldn’t you?
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)