The Gift of Magnolias

How we covet the first big flowering of the season! An explosion of white against still-gray trees.

“…The whiteness is a gift.
Soft, and slow, it opens
on the limbs. Watch it so.”
The Magnolia, Richard Lambert

Magnolias are among the most primitive flowering plants, dating to 90 million years ago. I like to think of them blossoming among dinosaurs and, millennia later, emperors and ordinary folks in their native Japan. We should have a holiday to celebrate them, or at least a picnic under a canopy of petals.

Tips and Techniques- I must admit that when I started drawing these blooms, I wasn’t sure where this page was headed. Only after I put in a pale background to pop out the flowers, did I realize that I was headed for a more involved negative painting with additional layers of blossoms and paint. So my advice this week is to be open to different ways of handling your subject. Go where the painting tells you to go. Experiment every now and then. Sometimes you’ll end up with a mess. But you’ll just as likely learn something new or end up with a gem.

A Welcome Sight

Whether it’s their sweet song, colorful breast, or way of bobbing across the lawn, seeing robins in springtime is a welcome sight. They spend the winter in small flocks feeding on berries and sheltering in nearby woods, where they blend in well with russet-colored oaks leaves and gray bark. But as the grass begins to green, robins are frequenting my yard more often, probing the soft ground for worms and other insects. They are common birds, yes, but no less deserving of attention, gratitude, and a sketch.

Tips and Techniques– I enjoy doing sketchbook pages like this, where I pick a bird and study it in different postures. I always learn a lot, both in the pencil sketch stage and when painting. My goal is to get the essential shapes and features down, preferably without too much fuss, so that the sketch stays fresh. Repeating the same species forces me to look more carefully. Here’s what I think about: What makes a robin look like a robin (and not another bird of similar size)? How can I get at least a basic amount of information on the page while the bird is moving? How can I use a photo reference without simply copying a photo? How can I let the paint do more of the work—mixing and blending on the paper to add interest?

Needing Green

It’s a perennial theme come March: the need for green. The hunger usually drives me to visit a greenhouse for a day of warmth and chlorophyll. Barring that this year, I’m stuck with my houseplants. A poor substitute, to be sure, but it’s nice to paint something that isn’t brown for a change.

Tips & TechniquesHow do you know when you’re finished? That question was posed to me by one of my class participants last week and it gave me pause. I have an intuitive sense about it, but the question forced me to define what I do at the final stages more specifically. In addition to watching this page evolve, consider these questions to evaluate your work at the final stages:

  • Have you developed a full range of values?
  • How’s the composition? Do you want to add anything to strengthen it?
  • Do you want to add text?
  • Would a border pull things together?
  • Did you convey what you set out to?

The Green Palette: Sap green, yellow ochre and Prussian blue are the main colors I used to mix these greens (Prussian and yellow ochre make some nice gray-greens). The darker greens are sap green and ultramarine. The grays are mainly violet and yellow ochre. I added a light wash of aureolin in places to brighten the other greens.

A Day at the Beach

When March feels like January and the urge to go outside and sketch no longer seems sane, I’m in trouble. I could use a change of scenery and fresh artistic inspiration, but, alas, there’s nowhere to go. So I’ve turned to my collection of beach finds to take me to warmer places and sunnier days. I like imagining whelks and horseshoe crabs crawling on sandy bottomed shores and blue mussels, sea stars, and urchins crammed into rocky cervices. Out there in the Atlantic, summer is just a dream away.   

Tips and Techniques– A collection like this is perfect for rainy days and times when you just want to practice. I decided to sketch directly in pen and use a size 12 round brush to keep this loose and spontaneous. Had I gone for a more precise approach, I’d still be working on it. When you sketch a collection, start with one of the largest objects first. Then add your second and third objects close to it. Build out from there. You can always tuck smaller items into tight spaces or fill gaps in the design.

Day after Day

You know the drill. The days blur into weeks and suddenly it’s late February. We’re nearly a year into the pandemic and, although I’m grateful for how fortunate I have been, I’m tired too. My sketchbook typically reflects moments of beauty and discovery, but I thought I should also record the sameness and sentiment of “Just another Covid day.” I was glad for the geese…and the coffee.

In Search of the Perfect Pear

A simple fruit. Painted millions of times over thousands of years. Perhaps it seems ordinary then to choose pears for my recent workshop to illustrate ways to improve layouts and add different types of lettering to sketchbooks. But once the workshop ended, the fruit’s lovely form and subtle colors continued to captivate me. So, I had to have one more go at it in my sketchbook. I’m sure it won’t be the last.


Tips & Techniques– During the workshop, we created a variety of thumbnail sketches of pears to play with different layouts. This is an excellent exercise for considering possible layouts, as well as for thinking through color combinations and values before committing to a painting. Pick a simple subject and see if you can create four to six different ways to approach it. This practice will expand your thinking and may lead you to fresh ideas or new techniques for working in your sketchbook and beyond.

Keep Looking

You would think that finding the walnut-sized egg case of a praying mantis in a two-acre overgrown field would be like finding a needle in a haystack. And, indeed, it is. I walked deep into the field, following deer trails and battling thorns and waste-high goldenrod stems. I didn’t go out especially looking for the egg cases. I just needed to get out in the cold, to go wandering in a rare moment of sun, during this dark week in American history.

Finding hope in times of unimaginable tyranny and loss seems equally elusive.

But there, amidst a small grove of white pines, among matted goldenrod and tangled thorny wild roses, I spied it: one frothy egg case, and then another. In all, I found six.

So, my simple takeaway—as much for myself as for you: keep looking.

Upcoming Programs:

Technique Takeaway: Improving Your Sketchbook Layouts and Lettering
Friday 1/15/20, 2-3:30pm (PST)
 / 5-6:30pm (EST) $40
Register: Winslow Art Center
This program will offer approaches to thinking about page design and improving your sketchbook page layouts. We’ll also explore ways to add text as a graphic element, or simply as a way to capture additional information and meaning.

The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook
Thursday 1/21/21, 6-7 pm, FREE; ages 10+
Register: Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy
Ask questions and draw along with me as I share some activities and tips from my new book to spark your curiosity. This session is especially suited to the 10+ year-old artist, explorer, or nature lover — and adults who have wanted to try nature journaling.

Dark Beauty

The sun fades quickly on December afternoons, dipping below the horizon not long after 4pm. Even after a lifetime of Decembers, it still surprises me how short these days are. But the silver lining comes once the sky begins to darken. Then, in the clarity of cold winter air, the bare branches of trees silhouetted against the backdrop of blue and pink, deep purple, and inky black create a singular beauty. These darkest days will soon pass, but while they last, I’ll cherish this silent and remarkable view.

Tips and Techniques– To achieve the deep colors of this painting, I used indathrone blue and Winsor violet, a bit of indigo and ultramarine, and a dash of aureolin yellow on the tree. I drew the maple first to map out the structure of the painting and then spattered masking fluid. After a wet-in-wet wash of the main colors, I added a bit more spatter and then began to pick out the trunk and branches. Starting with the branches that are in front and adding more and more with successive layers, the painting slowly gained depth. I added the details on the tree trunk and a final spatter of white gouache to finish the piece.

GOOD NEWS: The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook is back in stock! Take 25% off any purchase at Tumblehome Books until December 15th with code ty25. Thank you!

MORE GOOD NEWS: I am doing a free workshop Sketching Through the Winter on Friday, December 18, 1-2:30pm (PST) / 4-5:30pm (EST) as part of a series of free holiday events and paint-alongs at the Winslow Art Center. Check out the lineup of great programs and sign up!

Rosemary’s November

A work colleague surprised me last week when we stepped outside on a chilly afternoon and she declared, “November is my favorite month.” I was taken aback. In my entire life, I have never heard anyone choose November. We talked about what she liked so much: breathing in cold air, deep blue skies at dusk, quiet, Thanksgiving. Since that conversation, I have gone looking for Rosemary’s November. I’ve walked country roads late in the day, listened to geese overhead, and poked around the margins of weedy wetlands. Here’s what I found, and I send it to you with gratitude for following this blog and sharing your kind comments and thoughtful insights all year long. Here’s to November!

Tips and Techniques- Where to begin? I recommend starting with your sketchbook and a pen or pencil and a walk. Out on the roadside, or on a trail, walk for awhile until your mind stops thinking about what you were just doing or what you need to do or all the other things happening in your life. Walk until you start to become more present and begin to notice what’s around you. Then start looking. Look at the plants, watch for wildlife, see what’s happening. Then pick something that intrigues you and sketch it. I first noticed a single goldenrod gall and then saw about 30 more all around it. That’s how this page began. After you have something on your page, walk and look some more. Keep adding things until your page is full or its too cold and you have to go home. Hopefully, those will happen about the same time and you can retreat with a full page of discoveries.

Mutual Exchange

Among the things I love about teaching is getting to know workshop participants. I enjoy helping them learn new techniques and challenge themselves in order to grow as artists. And I love seeing the artwork they produce. But the exchange isn’t just one-way. My students push me to grow, too. This month, I’m teaching a four-week course focused on bird eggs, nests, and feathers, and it’s definitely forcing me to up my game. Here are two recent paintings I did, based on class assignments and with thanks to an exceptionally talented group of “Art of the Bird” participants.

California Scrub Jay Eggs
Black-chinned Hummingbird Nest

Tips & Techniques– Both of these paintings benefitted from a slow buildup of layers of watercolor. It’s especially important to have a delicate touch with eggs so that they remain translucent. I usually do a lot of experimenting to find the colors I want. For these paintings, I used combinations of raw sienna with phthalo blue as the main duo for the greens. You can see that I also carried raw sienna into the hummingbird nest, while mixing grays with combinations of raw and burnt sienna with cobalt and ultramarine blue. You might find doing a small mixing chart like this a handy reference for comparing color combinations.