Mushroom Explosion

Call me obsessed. I probably deserve it. I have spent nearly every evening this week painting nothing but mushrooms, buying field guides, making spore prints, and staying up late trying to identify my finds. In my defense, a treasure trove is growing before me– new species emerging each day under the grove of oaks that line our driveway. And I know that the intense humidity and rain that brings them out, all too quickly turns them to mush. In the end, my obsession stems from being astonished: I have recorded an impressive 26 different species in a single week: classic gilled mushrooms, large and colorful boletes, tiny coral fungi, and ringed polypores.

Consider this: several thousand species of mushrooms are found in the Northeast and upwards of 30,000 in North America. That’s more than all of the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and plants combined. I found identifying them challenging, even maddening, but I learned to look more keenly at key features in the process. It’s likely that I misidentified some and I didn’t gather enough information to even begin to identify others. If you spot one you know from this collection, drop me a note so I can look it up.

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Peach Season

It’s hard to exaggerate the extravagance of ripe peaches. Soft, striking, sweet, juicy…what fruits can rival them? Tomatoes, apples, eggplant, peppers? No match. Pears and cherries? Closer, but still second. Painting them is a pleasure, too. As is eating them, when the painting is done.

Tips and Techniques: First, I made it clear to my family, “Don’t eat the peaches until I paint them.” The previous three farmstand purchases disappeared before I had a chance at them. I started this as a simple ink sketch, and then painted multiple layers of Hansa yellow medium with quin rose, mixed with ultramarine blue for the darker skin. It’s important to let each layer dry thoroughly before adding the next. Building up layers allows the lighter tones to shine through, creating a more luminous effect than if you tried to get the color “right” in one go. I finished the page with a few details, spatter, and text (click the image to view larger).

The large and small of it

Big skies, sweeping vistas, far horizons. So much to see, too much to record. As an artist accustomed to rendering the details of small things—birds, butterflies, plants and such—I struggle when it comes to simplifying and capturing large landscapes or streetscapes in watercolor. So, I’m experimenting. My idea is to try working small on the premise that it will not allow me the space to get lost in detail. My goal is to get good in advance of an upcoming trip to Ireland, where I’ll have fantastic scenery and limited painting time. Here are my initial attempts, a few from the salt marshes of Westport, Massachusetts and two from Harbor Island and Franklin Light, Maine. (Click to view larger.)
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Granite Cliffs, Harbor Island: 4″ x 2.5″, Franklin Light: 5″ x 2″, Egret: 4″ x 2.5″; Salt Marsh and Osprey Nest: 2.5″ x 1.25

Tips & Techniques– You tell me! What works for you in translating complex landscapes to paper? How do you decide what’s important and what to leave out? How do you scale from small to large without getting too fussy?

Essentials

Imagine a week on an island off the coast of Maine. No cars, no stores, no streetlights…just good company, good food, starry skies, blue horizons, and long days spent almost entirely outside. These are the essentials for Arts and Birding, a week-long program I facilitate each year at the Hog Island Audubon Camp. Because I’m teaching, I don’t have time to complete much artwork of my own, but I did manage a few pages. And as always, I came away inspired to keep observing, sketching, and sharing my work with the wider world.

Notes: (Clockwise from top) It’s not all birds! We also explore and sketch coastal scenes, plants, and life in the watery realm between high and low tide; Hog Island has a great collection of bird specimens, including a drawer of bird eggs; Young osprey nesting on the island are banded by wildlife biologists each year. It makes for fast sketching, but it’s a thrill to see these birds up close; Just the essentials for a week of Arts and Birding.

Arts and Birding is open for both sketchers/painters and photographers. Here’s a few photos from the week taken by photography staff and participants.

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Registration for Arts and Birding 2019 opens in October; the session often fills quickly. Stay tuned here.

New Neighbors

I’ve been watching our newest neighbors as they take up residence in our yard. Bluebirds recently fledged from one of our nest boxes and a brief battle for the box was won by a pair of house wrens. There are not really four birds, as depicted, but I wanted to capture the pattern of the pair’s activities during the nest building stage. These poses were repeated over and over as I sketched. You’d think that would have made it easier, but wrens aren’t known for standing still. I switched between using binoculars and picking up the pencil to make the initial drawing, then added color later. I like the way the poses capture the some of the story of the wrens setting up house.

Tips and Techniques– I used a pale non-photo-blue pencil to make my initial sketches of the wrens. This gave me a chance to work on the postures before committing to ink. A regular pencil would have been fine, too, but the blue pencil is easy to erase and cover over with paint. It’s a handy tool for birds and other tricky subjects.

My second tip is for those of you who have nest boxes: be sure to monitor them. Open the box quickly about once a week to check on the nest, eggs, or young. This will give you a good idea of what species are using your boxes, whether they fledge successfully, and whether there are any problems. My bluebird nest became infested with ants and I was able to remove it once the birds fledged so that the box was clean for the next inhabitant. There’s good information about nest box monitoring and a code of conduct here: https://nestwatch.org/

High Chroma

I am frequently a painter of subtlety: of small things that might be overlooked, of browns and blues and layers of green. Not today. Drawn in by the vivid, bold color of these poppies at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, I pulled out a whole new palette from a set of six high chroma colors from QoR to paint them. I have never used any of these colors before and it felt a little like driving a car for the first time– a little nerve wracking and reckless, but also liberating and fun.

Like the poppies, the set of six colors are pure, intense, and saturated. What’s nice is that the colors in the set were chosen to work well together and to produce a full range of colors. I found the only thing missing for this painting was a way to get a good deep green. I added some sap green, but ended up with stems and leaves that are inconsistent and murky. In retrospect, phthalo green might have been a better choice. Here’s the color test I did after the poppies (I know, testing before would make more sense.)

Tips and Techniques– The quality of a color is described by words like hue, value and chroma. Hue is the color itself, as represented on the spectrum of all colors. Value is the relative lightness or darkness of the color, and chroma refers to the quality of the color’s purity, intensity, or saturation. They all make a difference, but what’s really important is to get to know the colors you have in your palette. If you haven’t already, do some color tests of different combinations of primary and secondary colors to see what combinations mix best. If your paintings tend to look flat, it’s likely you need to expand your value range by leaving more lights and pushing the darks.

Among Dogwoods

Standing among sunlit dogwood blossoms is a treat: white petals bright against a backdrop of dappled greens, blue sky, and bird song. The moment would be perfect but for the gnats that bite the back of my neck while sketching. They force me to draw fast and loose and then retreat to the house. Still, when I look at this painting months or years from now, it will not be the insects I remember, but the long-awaited spring day and the blank sheet of paper bright with promise.
Among Dogwoods, 5×7″, watercolor on Fabriano 300lb cold press watercolor paper.

Tips and Techniques– I took advantage of negative painting techniques for this, starting with a wet in wet wash of phthalo blue, Hansa yellow medium, and quin rose over my pencil drawing. I left a lot of white for the flowers, but you can see that I wasn’t exact with every edge. Once dry, I proceeded to do a long series of varied washes to define to foliage and create a sense of depth. I find that this type of painting takes a while to develop, and doesn’t fully take shape until I add the darkest layers and final details (e.g., the moth, shadows, and red highlights on the flowers). I worked on it over the course of a week. Stepping away is not only important for letting the paint dry between layers, but helps me come back and see it fresh.

Here’s a second painting that I started that will give you a sense of what this looks like in the early stages. You can see where I’m just beginning to pick out the shapes from the pencil drawing. Patience is key!