The November garden is as stark as the rest of the world. The vibrancy of the August palette has given way to browns and grays. A touch of green and ocher and russet remain. It isn’t much, but I’ll take it. A tangle of once-scarlet runner beans is all there is for a final garden painting.
I love the way you can be drawn to something for one reason and end up some place completely different. In this case, I simply liked the detailed pattern of a friend’s blue and white porcelain teacup. I ended up not only with a painting, but transported to 18th century Germany. The “Blue Onion” pattern was introduced by Europe’s oldest porcelain manufacturer, Meissen, in 1740, and inspired by blue and white patterns from China. From there, I researched further to learn that the distinctive blue glaze used in Chinese porcelain for centuries came from cobalt ores imported from Persia. It turns out that cobalt oxide can withstand the highest firing temperatures required for porcelain. I like to think of this enduring color passing through centuries, from glaze makers to artists around the world, to a single teacup painted in cobalt from my small watercolor paint box.
My yard is littered with walnuts, the driveway with acorns, the side yard with sugar maple keys. My desk, too, is nearly taken over by tree seeds of all shapes and sizes and in various states of decay. I have been collecting them for the past few weeks in order to make this painting. Collection pages are so much fun to do. Whether seeds or mushrooms or amphibians or moths, I enjoy learning about each species and about the group as a whole. And I enjoy the challenge of making the individual parts come together on paper. This piece is nearly done, but for labeling each of the tree seeds. What script to use is my final decision— as is figuring out what those three wiry balls on the right are (I know the rest—do you?)
While its customary to leave an outside light on at night for family or guests who are arriving late, I have taken to leaving a light on for an entirely different sort of guest. Each morning I am eager to discover who has come in the night to hang out on our back porch. We have had some exceptional visitors this week and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know who else lives in my neck of the woods.
Tips and Techniques– One of my goals with these moths was not to fuss too much, which is easy to do when faced with such detailed markings. I try to capture each moth with about three passes:
- I lay in the shape and “ground” color first with a wet wash, typically using two colors to get some variation. I begin directly with paint, rather than drawing first. I find that I can capture the basic shape this way with much greater speed. While one moth is drying, I start another and rotate among them.
- Next, I start to delineate the wings from the body and add the primary pattern of markings. The paint is less wet on this pass.
- On the third go around, I use a very dry brush to add remaining details. The antennae are last, as is identifying and labeling each one. This technique worked for all but the Polyphemus moth, which is ridiculously complex and took far more time than the others.
A pop of red amidst a tangle of greens, scarlet runner beans wind their way to the top of the garden trellis, sending flowers to the sun and beans drooping toward the ground. Just a few months ago, they were a mere handful of purple and black streaked seeds. Now, they dare you to imagine that they were ever anything other than extraordinary. And so, I think that writer Robert Brault is onto something: If you’ve never experienced the joy of accomplishing more than you can imagine, plant a garden.
(Click to view larger.)
Tips and Techniques: Sometimes, the composition of a piece is sitting right in front of you, and sometimes you have do a bit of rearranging to make it work. I saw the central elements of this piece—the three main dangling beans and the diagonal vine with red flowers on the left side of the page—right on the trellis. But I needed to add flowers, leaves, beans and tendrils from several different runner beans to complete the composition. As an artist, don’t feel that you need to draw exactly (or only) what is in front of you. Give yourself creative latitude to move things around or eliminate something to create a stronger composition.
I am excited to share with you that Watercolor Artist Magazine selected one of my journal pages for its Open Book feature in the October issue. Each issue looks inside an artist’s sketchbook and includes one page and a bit of insight from the artist. The October issue is full of terrific articles on plein air and nature painting, so this is an ideal fit. I’m honored to be included!
“Who can imagine my dear country’s dark woods, it’s vast Atlantic bays, it’s thousands of streams, lakes, and magnificent rivers? I wish that I could draw it all.”
–John James Audubon
I couldn’t agree more. During my art retreat on Hog Island in Maine I felt like I was hiking in the Cathedral of Nature. I was in awe of the island’s moss-carpeted forests, its milkweed fields alight with monarchs, and its waist-high ferns growing wherever storms had created openings to allow in more light. Osprey circled above the spruce spires, while hermit thrush, northern parula and black-throated green warblers echoed in the shadowy woods. I wished that I could draw it all.
Click any image to view larger.
Tips and Techniques– The greatest challenge to these paintings was undoubtedly mosquitoes. They own the Maine woods and bogs in summer. I stuck to sketching on trails close to the shore and had to skip drawing in the forest interior. The exception I made was to sketch in the bog. There, I worked directly in ink to capture the flowers and a few plants. Then I snapped a couple of photos and retreated to paint later in the comfort of my cabin. Some challenges are worth it.