After Mary Oliver

“My work is loving the world.”

So begins the poem Messenger, by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, who died this week at the age of 83. Oliver delivered intimate observations of nature and deepened our understanding of life’s essence in few, choice words.

“Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums…”

And though there were no hummingbirds or sunflowers to be found here yesterday, I nevertheless felt compelled to walk down the starkly cold winter road in honor of Mary Oliver and to satisfy my own need to find what beauty might remain along the roadside.

“Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished…”

Standing still in 21-degree weather means mostly frozen fingers. Still, there is no substitute for being present; for being astonished by the cold; by wingbeats of geese overhead; by curled leaves of grasses waving in the wind.

Barnacles!

It’s not every day an editor needs illustrations of barnacles. It’s not every artist who could say, “Yes, I’ve drawn lots of barnacles.” So when an editor from PassageMaker Magazine contacted me so see if I might like to illustrate an article on barnacles and boats, how could I refuse? All those days I spent poking in low tide pools at the edge of the sea and sketching its inhabitants prepared me well for just such an assignment. It’s not every day that natural history, art, exploration, and financial reward come together for me in such a satisfying way. I’m really pleased that this turned out so well.


Barnacle study, 2011

Tips and Techniques– “Day after day, never fail to draw something which, however little it may be, will yet in the end be much,” advised Italian painter Cennino Cennini in 1390. Don’t wait for a grand subject for sketching practice. Look at the things around you and jump in. Even a lowly barnacle — small, ordinary, and ubiquitous — may prove more fascinating and beautiful than you realized.

Bird Words

Letterforms and birds are subjects that frequently turn up in my journals. At first, I simply matched bold words with their subjects, but more recently, I’ve tried to get birds to perch on letters. It’s not always easy to do. You’ve got to know a bit about the anatomy of bird feet, and find the right placement to support the bird and balance the page. Here’s a fun one that I did today— the lovely winter wren.

 

Here are a few sketches and paintings that give a sense of my progression with this over the years.

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Tips and Techniques– Don’t shy away from learning to draw birds’ feet. You know you’re guilty if you are prone to hide this part of a bird’s anatomy behind leaves and branches. A simple Google search for “bird feet anatomy” will turn up lots of good diagrams and drawings for you to study and practice. If you have an opportunity to look at bird skins or mounted birds at a nature center or museum, take the time to sketch  feet. It’s a sure way to improve your bird art.

Tis the Season

It’s a busy time of year in my workshop. ‘Tis the season for making lists, and creating gifts and cards and tags. This leaves little time for personal artwork. Instead, I glued my To Do lists into my journal and, as you can see, this page reflects the rather messy state of my affairs. 

My favorite project each year is the Christmas letter I create for my former neighbor’s children. I have been sending them tales from the North Pole for several years; and though they are now at the age when believing in such magic is increasingly met with skepticism, I can’t let the Christmas spirit go. Here’s this year’s card—just a simple note, but one that I am happy to share with them, and with you at this festive time of year. Wishing you joy!

 

November Field

The treachery, at last, too late, is plain;
Bare are the places where the sweet flowers dwelt.
From November, by Helen Hunt Jackson

An early snow took me by surprise. Not that I hadn’t heard the forecast, just that I wasn’t ready to give up fall. The fields still held a bit of green, there were leaves yet to rake, and 20 daffodils to go in the ground. Alas, that was before. Now, the ground is white but for a scattering of russet oak leaves, and the season of browns and blues has begun.

Tips and Techniques: I have been doing a lot of illustration work lately, and although I could have done a detailed drawing of grasses and seed heads, I wanted to change gears and get at the patterns and layers of the field. I started by taping the edges with low tack artist tape, then drew the outlines of several seed pods and goldenrod galls I collected. I painted the entire page with a loose wash of burnt umber and ultramarine blue and let it dry. Then I painted successive layers of blue and brown, darkening the space between the shapes and adding new plant stalks to add depth.

Initially, I painted around the shapes, but later I used liquid masking fluid to reserve the lighter layers. Along the way, I added burnt sienna and quin gold to warm up the page. Once I was satisfied with the depth of color, I removed all the mask and added just a few details on some of the lightest seed heads. This technique requires patience as you wait for the washes to dry completely between layers; it helps to have a second project going at the same time!

Untapped Potential

Bird eggs are full of potential. In the most elegant and simple form, they remind us of new beginnings, of possibilities. Surrounding them, of course, is the tangled mess. Sometimes, great things hatch, sometimes not. In this case, the adult robins disappeared, leaving these three eggs behind. In discovering them, I suppose, the untapped potential passed to me. If not in life, then in art, the birds’ legacy lives on.

In the Brambles

I discovered this American redstart nest back in May. The birds laid four chestnut speckled eggs and by July they were gone. Now, with leaves falling and foliage dying back, I returned to the nest for another view. Still protected by thorns and a tangle of leaves, and a bit weather worn, the nest remains a thing of beauty: perfectly woven with bark and pine needles and threaded with strips of birch and spider webs. What better treasure could there be in the brambles?

 

Tips and Techniques: In the spirit of Inktober, I sketched this nest directly in ink using a dip pen and Calli jet black India waterproof ink. I added a lot of detail to the drawing before adding watercolor. To create a fully saturated variety of gold, green, and russet leaves, I painted four or five (or more) transparent layers of color, going from light to dark and finally to shadow tones. The moral of the story is not to stop too soon. You don’t want to overwork it, but if your layers are transparent, you can really build up rich and subtle color.