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.
The Hog Island Audubon Camp has an incredible lab with hundreds of specimens and bird study skins. What makes it extraordinary is that camp participants and staff have access to it all. Drawers of mothball-laden cabinets reveal many treasures: bird eggs, wings, feet, skulls, and whole birds. I love using the collection to study birds up close and to teach Arts and Birding participants about bird anatomy. This year, I chose two birds that are frequently heard but hard to see in the island’s spruce forest—hermit thrush and black throated green warbler—and used a combination of video and study skins to bring them to life on paper.
Tips and Techniques– If you want to improve your bird drawings, I highly recommend studying bird anatomy and feather structure, and looking at stuffed specimens or study skins. Many museums and nature centers have collections that you can request permission to look at. You’ll be able to see key features up close and sketch details that you can then incorporate into subsequent bird artwork.
The rocky coast of Maine is a place shaped by granite and water. It is a landscape of quiet salt marshes, tidal bays, dark spruce forests, and hundreds of islands. It’s a place where the cries of seabirds overhead meet the ethereal songs of forest birds hidden in deep shade; and where people have made a living fishing for cod, haddock, lobsters, and shellfish for thousands of years. I have had the privilege of spending the last two weeks there at the Hog Island Audubon Camp, located on a 330-acre island nature preserve near Bremen. I spent the first week teaching and directing a five-day workshop called Arts & Birding; and stayed a second week for an art sabbatical.
It was a pleasure to have such enthusiastic and talented participants for Arts and Birding. Every day brought new adventures: island hikes, boat cruises to see puffins and other seabirds, intertidal exploration, studies of bird anatomy, osprey banding, and sessions focused on drawing, painting and photography skills. A daily salon gave everyone a chance to share their artwork and photographs in a relaxed and supportive setting.
What follows are my sketch-journal pages from Arts and Birding, with brief comments in the captions (click any image to view larger). Watch for subsequent posts from my arts retreat week.
If this tempts you to attend Arts & Birding or other workshops at Hog Island in 2020, mark your calendar now! Arts & Birding is tentatively scheduled for July 19-24 (registration opens October 21, 2019).
When peonies bloom, rain nearly always follows. And so it was that I lost my subject. Still, I am pleased to have June’s most elegant flower in the pages of my sketchbook, a few cut flowers on my table, and pink and white petals littering the garden.
Tips and Techniques-
What you don’t see on this page are all the test sheets of greens that I’ve been working on this week: blue and yellow combinations, “convenience” green combinations (sap green, phthalo green, green gold), greens with browns, and greens with reds. I’m looking for highly transparent mixes that offer a good range of light to dark values. The trick is that when I’m working on a negative painting like this, I want to let some of the colors mix right on the page—and some greens are just too garish for that. What I (mostly) ended up with here is phthalo blue, nickel azo yellow, and a touch of quin magenta. If you struggle with greens, I highly recommend doing color tests of your own. You’ll quickly discover lots of combinations that don’t work and many that do. And you’ll gain confidence in your colors that will serve you well in your future paintings.
If you have go-to green combinations that you especially like, leave a comment so we can learn from each other!
Leave behind the comfort of your home art space—whether kitchen table, corner desk, or complete studio— and you’ll soon find an immediacy and sense of discovery that come from working directly from nature. Granted, you’ll be trading comfortable seating, fixed light, and a full suite of art supplies for less certain conditions. But you’ll be able to observe details, see colors, and experience your subjects firsthand in ways that will make your artwork more vibrant and alive.
At least, that’s the ideal. This week, however, painting outdoors brought significant trials: bright sun dried my paint too fast in the garden and the most annoying and insidious bugs attacked me one evening while painting irises. Was it worth it? Of course. But I’ll forever look at these irises and see myself swatting bugs in vain with a paint brush.
Tips and Techniques- Try different approaches to painting. Here, I’ve used my go-to ink sketch followed by watercolor for In the Garden and then painted directly with watercolor with no initial sketch for the irises. The bugs forced me to work quickly and let the paint run freely, which led to some nice mixing on the paper. You can see that my session with the irises was cut short. This could use a bit more definition, but I wanted leave it alone and perhaps start over, without the bugs.