December at Home
With snow yet to come and trees now bare bones, slate colored skies, tawny fields, and dun-colored woods dominate the landscape. Here and there, white pines tower above it all, making me think that that’s where I’d be if I were a bird in December. I’ve drawn the land around my home in different seasons, and I like the way using a grid with a variety of small vignettes helps me to convey a sense of place. Looking back, August and September were certainly more colorful and January brighter, but I do love the dark muted skies of December that seem a perfect end to the year.
Tips & Techniques- Check out the free online programs offered this week at Winslow Art Center’s Winter Bash. I’m pleased to offer Back to the Drawing Board on Saturday, 12/17. During this “draw-along” we’ll have fun practicing the art of seeing and rendering objects using pencils, pens, and ink and wash. If you have drawing tools you rarely use, this is a great chance to test them out.
I spy the nest in a thicket at the edge of the field. There’s no way to reach it but to wade in. I follow an old deer trail that takes me part way, and then battle brambles, thorns, and waist-high goldenrod stems to reach the prize. Unlike many nests at this time of year, this one is still quite intact. Whoever wove it did a beautiful job.
Tips and Techniques– I always do some research about my subjects, especially nests. Like identifying birds, identifying nests requires a process of elimination. At first glance, I think this is a goldfinch, but I’m not sure. It’s the right place, height, shape, and size, but lacks the soft thistle down and spider webs that typically adorn the top and inside cup of goldfinch nests. I’ve searched field guides to nests, online images, and bird information, which helped me rule out various sparrows, finches, and warblers, but still I haven’t found a perfect match. It could be that this particular goldfinch didn’t follow the script. Sometimes you just have to accept the mystery. At any rate, I thought I should post it before it becomes December’s Nest.
At this time of year, with no cloak of greenery, I’m drawn to old trees, grown in the open with limbs spreading out fully in the sun; magnificent giants that stand out from the crowd. I bet you know a few. I love seeing the bare bone structure of massive limbs and trunks, of cavities and broken branches. This sycamore is among my favorites. It grows in a park near the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers in New York and has witnessed the growth and passing of woods and farms and factories. Sometimes an eagle perches high in its branches—a magnificent throne, fit for a king.
Tips and Techniques– Big trees are typically so large and complex that you might want to tackle a section rather than attempt the whole tree. Especially when working in a smaller sketchbook, trying to get the entire tree on the page can end up making it seem small and less impactful. Use the negative spaces between branches to your advantage when figuring out the structure. Those shapes are a significant part of the composition as well, so look for a vantage point that presents interesting shapes at the outset.
Coming up: The final session of my Drawn to Nature series on 12/8 will focus on capturing a sense of place with a grid format; details and registration here. Registration is also open for Sketching through the Winter: Watercolor Series which begins in January. Watch for free online programs in December at Winslow Art Center. I’ll be offering Back to the Drawing Board on 12/17. Details to come.
This painting is a gift: a symbol of new life and the cradle that embraces its fragile loveliness. I painted it for my cousin to give to her daughter, who has two daughters of her own. One was born this summer, nearly four months early. Yet by the grace of many small miracles and the amazing skill of neonatal care, she recently went home, beautiful and healthy. Two blue eggs, so much to be grateful for.
Tips and Techniques– I loved doing the shadows in this piece and, in fact, they are critical to getting any nest to look dimensional. The cast shadows are cobalt blue and Winsor violet with plenty of water, painted in one go with loose brushstrokes. It’s worth practicing shadows, as it will help you to learn how much water you need and will build your confidence in making marks without fuss.
Out of Season
Usually, I would bring you beach finds in summer, when freshly found and still holding a hint of sea and salt air. But here they are in November, a collection of small treasures that I pulled out for my latest Drawn to Nature class. I used them to illustrate ways to record discoveries and layout sketchbook pages when out exploring. Like a puzzle whose picture is revealed only when complete, these types of pages are built piece by piece and end up capturing a particular place or moment in time. So, though out of season, I hope this brings you a sense of wonder for the sea and for the otherworldly creatures that live in its watery depths.
Tips and Techniques– Unlike a precise natural history illustration, this type of page often requires you to sketch quickly, especially if you are working with time constraints, challenging conditions, or objects that you can’t collect. Practice doing small sketches where you try to capture what you are looking at in two to five minutes. Draw the basic shape and some of the darker values. You will soon find a flow as your eyes begin to really see and your pen or pencil meets the paper. This practice will prepare you for working in all kinds of settings and conditions and add a freshness to your work that you simply can’t get when working from photos.
There is meditation in making bread. The coming together of simple elements, transformed by hands and patience into something sublime. In this season of slowing down and coming indoors, it’s time to appreciate the subtle aroma of yeast; it’s time for kneading dough into a smooth, glossy form; it’s time for breaking bread. Coming indoors also seemed like a good time for me to try something new and stretch my skills. You can read more about that below, or just indulge me in a new subject and way of painting this week.
Tips and Techniques– Instead of using transparent watercolors, I painted this piece with opaque watercolors known as gouache. Like traditional watercolors, gouache is mixed with water, but it differs substantially because it can be worked loose and wet or thick and heavy, more like acrylics or oils. Getting the right consistency takes practice.
Another difference is that gouache is painted dark to light, which bent my usual way of thinking and working. So did using white and black—colors I typically avoid– to tone colors lighter or darker. Still, gouache seems more solid and painterly to me; and that’s what I wanted here. There is a lot of subtle shading to this piece, which made it both challenging and satisfying. Where does white shift to pale gray to deep shadow to create folds in the towel? How does light create form and change the color of dough from tan to golden to tanish-gray? How does a tiny thread of white convey light on the rim of the bowl? Good challenges indeed for my week.
After the grand display of autumn’s boldest colors, the leaves come down. One by one they fall, by day and night, in windswept flurries and slow-motion descents. I collect a sample of oak, maple, beech, hickory; trying to preserve the quickly fading splendor. But in the turning of the season, all is not lost. The Earth is grounded in beauty, change, quiet, and renewal…and so are we.
Tips and Techniques– I always think that painting leaves will be easier than it is. There must be a way to simply splash bold colors on the page, but I haven’t figured it out. Instead, I take the slow road: a pencil sketch, followed several layers of watercolor. I like starting with a wet-in-wet wash to let colors merge on the paper. Then I deepen the color and add details and shadows last. If you have not painted leaves before, you might start with just one or two. This will build your skill and confidence before tackling more.
Sometimes, painting is about the obvious things: the beauty that’s right in front of you, bold colors, compelling light, big picture views. But more often for me, it’s about the things you might pass by: the subtle, the small, the imperfect. Learning to notice is more important than pencil, paper, or paint.
I had ample opportunities to sketch both bigger views and subtleties when in Maine recently. Which is more compelling to you?
Blue Mussels on a Rainy Day
October in Maine: a gift. As lovely and as simple as blue mussels on a rainy day. As steady as the ocean lapping on shore, loons calling their lonesome cry from the expanse of blue. As surprising as a pair of kingfishers rattling in flight across a cove. As beautiful as flames of crimson and gold maples and burnt sienna salt marsh hay glowing in the sun. Today, I send you the mussels. More gifts to come.
The season of brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows is upon us here in the Northeast. While the changing foliage of trees steals the show, those same colors echoed in roadsides and fields are just as lovely. I’d better get painting– the season’s peak doesn’t last long. Step out and enjoy the colorful show while you can.
Tips and Techniques– Don’t be intimidated by painting tiny flowers. They can be niggly, but keep in mind that you don’t have to draw every tiny shape and detail. Look at the overall structure of the plant and sketch enough detail to suggest it. Then paint the overall color loosely. You can go back in with a second wash to add a few details. The same is true for detailed leaves. You can sketch the main ones and then let your brush suggest the rest.