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.

Along the Roadside…October

You never know what you’ll find out on the roadside. Although I walk the same two-mile loop frequently, few days are ever the same. Subtle changes shift one week into the next, one season into another. Noticing is the art of going.

My recent walks have been in the late afternoon; wind picking up, sun low on the horizon. The flowers and grasses have gone to seed, a few bunches of wild grapes are left for the birds. It’s a good time to capture the moment: October in its final fading days. November is coming fast.

Admittedly, this next page is an unusual addition to this post.I came upon a dead barred owl lying in the grassy margin of the roadside, clearly struck by a car or truck. Daylight was fading fast, but the owl was so absolutely beautiful that I couldn’t let it go. If I didn’t paint it then, the opportunity might be gone. There was only time to capture a fleeting impression of feathers, but that seemed a fitting way to acknowledge the life and the loss.

Autumn Trio

More than half of the autumn leaves are on the ground now where I live, which means two things: lots of raking and beautiful colors littering the woods. It doesn’t take long for leaves to dry out and fade, so I have forsaken the rake in favor of the paint brush. A good choice, don’t you think?

Tips and Techniques– Leaf “portraits” like this are a good way to practice painting skills. They force you to work on getting crisp edges, mix subtle color variations, and use both wet-in-wet and dry brush techniques. I started with a light pencil drawing and then a wet-in-wet wash to establish the lightest colors and define the shapes. I continued with three or four more layers to deepen and adjust the colors and add texture. Adding a shadow gives these a bit more dimension. There are a lot of leaves out there to choose from—have a go!

Wind Fall

It’s apple season here in New York; the time for picking apples and drinking cider and making pies. But for sketching, I prefer to leave the perfect apples for others and seek out wild and wind fallen fruit. Like Thoreau, I find almost all wild apples handsome. They are beautiful not in spite of their misshapen and knotted appearance, but because of it.

I recently had the honor of being interviewed by Bethan Burton for an episode of the Journaling with Nature podcast. We talk about my approach to sketching, my love of subjects that are often overlooked, and about my book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook. Everyone should be interviewed by someone as sweet as Bethan. Her soft Australian accent and ability to put you at ease makes the conversation flow and leave you feeling like you’ve gained a friend.

Give a listen here: or search for Journaling With Nature wherever you listen to podcasts. You can find it on Apple, Google, and Spotify. 

Feathers

Bird feathers- wow! Form, function, and beauty in one perfect package. And so much variety and complexity of patterns that my head is spinning. I’ve been preparing for my upcoming class on The Art of the Bird by gathering resources and reference material and working out painting exercises. Painting these feathers gave me a whole new appreciation for the simplicity of the form and the challenge of rendering them well.

Red-tailed Hawk tail feathers
Miscellaneous contour and flight feathers

Tips and Techniques– If you’d like to make your head spin with a dizzying array of bird feathers, check out The Feather Atlas. The online image database is dedicated to the identification and study of the flight feathers of North American birds. The feathers illustrated are from the curated collection of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. You can look up birds by species or browse the collection. Check out the owls or the nighthawks for starters- either one will leave you marveling.

Mark your calendar…I have two free Zoom chats coming up in November:
Look, See, Sketch, 11/4, 5-5:45pm (EST)
Art Chat, 11/5, 1pm (EST) / 10am (PST)

Mushroom Season

Weeks of hot, humid weather followed by a rainstorm or two means it’s time to watch for mushrooms. We had a terrific explosion of fungi in our yard in August two years ago, then none appeared last year; so I’ve been hoping this year would yield another bonanza. I am not disappointed. In the last few days, hundreds of mushrooms have pushed up from the soil under a small grove of oaks and walnuts. 

Among the benefits of keeping a nature journal is having a record over time of everything from mushrooms to bird nests to wildflowers. I had a moment of complacency about sketching these, thinking that I’d painted them all before. But as soon as I started and began looking closely, I kept finding more and different varieties. Then, when I looked back on my journal from two years ago, I was surprised to discover how little overlap there was. Even the most modest subjects lead to fascinating discoveries.

Tips and Techniques- I sketched these with a water soluble HB pencil with watercolor, using a 3/8″ (10mm) flat brush. The pencil lines soften and merge with the watercolor, but you can see them clearly where I didn’t touch them at all. My hope was that the flat brush would force me to work with less fuss, and I think it worked. I used a size 2 round for a few details in the soil and details on the caps.

 

Lessons from an Onion

Sometimes simple things teach us a lot. In this case, the lowly onion had much to say. I used it as a subject for my online class, The Artist’s Sketchbook, which I started teaching last week.

Lessons from an Onion
1. Pay attention to basic ingredients: lines, shapes, and values.
2. Don’t overlook commonplace subjects. The most beautiful is not always the most interesting.
3. Add layers. Layering transparent color adds depth.

Here’s the progression from start to finish. You can see how adding layers of watercolor and values from light to dark makes all the difference in bringing the loose lines and shapes of the initial drawing to life.

Note: The Artist Sketchbook, which runs through August 3, is currently full. Watch for future course announcements here or contact the Winslow Art Center.

Beach Bonus

I’m not sure what was most exciting: seeing yellow horned poppies in bloom, watching recently hatched killdeer chicks scurrying in the strand line, or sketching on the beach in sunshine while northern skies blackened in advance of a terrific thunderstorm. Just being at the ocean seemed bonus enough. I love this rocky beach in southern Massachusetts. It’s full of speckled granite cobblestones and larger outcroppings of glacial-striated bedrocks. Beachcombing always proves fruitful and the birding is great. What’s especially nice is the pleasure of revisiting it through my sketchbook now that I’m back home in New York.

Tips and Techniques– Glaucous green! Who knew there was such a thing? But sure enough, here it is. While researching beach poppies, I found a poem that described “Her leaves are glaucous-green and hoar…” That led me down a rabbit hole of looking up information on the word “glaucous.” Turns out, glaucous has Latin and Greek roots and describes colors ranging from pale yellow-green to bluish-gray. The Latin name for this poppy is glaucuim flavum (glaucium = green and flavum = yellow). A mix of lemon yellow and cobalt blue are perfect for mixing glaucous greens. Combine and experiment with them for your next blue-green foliage.

Poppies

For two weeks now, poppies have been opening each day in our garden. Light and airy as ballet dancers, their moment center stage is short, but oh so lovely. I started this page when the first pink flower bloomed and added more as they opened— plant after plant, all pink. And then, a single red blossom opened. Outstanding in its singularity, it seemed the perfect punctuation to a page—and to a garden in need of a bit of diversity to really make it shine.

I did this second painting of poppies while visiting the garden at Olana State Historic Site. These bold, frilly-edged perennial poppies were in full late-day sun, which forced me to work quickly. I like the resulting freshness and fullness of this one.  

Tips and Techniques– Notice the treatment of foliage in these two pieces. In the pink annual poppies, I decided to leave out the leaves to to showcase the simple grace of the stems and flowers. In contrast, putting in a suggestion of gray-green foliage offers a useful compliment to the red poppies at Olana. Remember that as an artist, you are also an editor. Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean you have to paint it. Make choices about what’s in front of you to simplify and hone in on what you want to convey.