I am fortunate to live by a stream and I’ve been especially curious about the ice that forms along it in winter. My favorite formation is the sculpted pillars that drip from exposed roots and fallen limbs at the water’s edge. They are created by a combination of water seeping, dipping, rushing, polishing, freezing and melting. Water is both artist and artwork, creating and sculpting as it flows in an ephemeral streamside gallery.
Tips and Techniques– When you sketch directly from nature, you also experience it in ways that working solely from a photo cannot offer. Frigid wind, rushing water, and awkward footing meant I had about 15 minutes to complete a base drawing and take a reference photo before retreating to the house to paint and do some research. Had I simply taken a photo and sketched entirely inside, my drawing would have been neater, but I would not have looked as carefully or felt so keenly the cold beauty of the stream in winter.
Hummingbirds continue to be my muse this week, with a focus on living birds, instead of trying to bring dead ones to life (Bringing Hummingbirds to Life). Since these little gems won’t return to the northeast for another two-and-a-half months, I watched a video on Explore.org for reference. I also swapped my usual set of watercolor paints here for gouache, which is an opaque watercolor paint that can be layered light on dark.
Tips and Techniques– I wanted to try gouache without a big investment, so I bought Windsor & Newton’s Primary Color Set (primary red, yellow, and blue, black, and white). This meant lots of color mixing, which was good. I don’t have much experience with gouache, so it took a lot of trial and error to figure out how to get the right consistency, as well as how to use white and black (something I never do with transparent watercolor). Although the new medium tested me, it also stretched my thinking. I’ve started a second hummingbird nest painting and I’m eager to keep learning.
There are many lovelier species than insects, but none, perhaps, so inexplicably diverse, strange, and – dare I suggest it – marvelous. Our annoyance with “pests,” of which there are many, and our fear of others easily prevent us from taking a closer look at insects. But how can we fail to marvel at these most successful members of the animal kingdom? No doubt, it is easier to wonder at a museum collection under glass, than to appreciate black flies in May. Still, I invite you to come gasp with me*, if only for a moment, at these incredible creatures.
*This phrase was inspired by the poem “Catelog of Unabashed Gratitude” by Ross Gay
Tips and Techniques– Drawing insects invites careful observation and study. Most are built of just three basic body parts—head, thorax, and abdomen. Wings and legs are attached to the thorax, when present. Variation on the theme is where the fun is. If sketching bugs is “not your thing,” I recommend starting with prettier species like butterflies and moths. They just may inspire you to move on to dragonflies, beetles and bees.
I came upon this old, spreading White Pine while walking in the woods last weekend. It’s huge base branched into multiple massive trunks. Known as a wolf tree, this giant of the forest began its life growing in pasture long ago. With space to spread out and plenty of sunlight, its lower limbs grew outward and upward. Years later, when the pasture was let go, other trees grew around it, creating woodland. A century ago, foresters thought old trees like this were preying on forest resources and, like a wolf, should be culled. It is now widely known that they provide shelter for many species of birds and forest animals. I had my eye out for owls, but instead saw two red-tailed hawks fly off, startled by my presence.
Tips and Techniques– I managed this ink sketch with a Micron 02 pen and one glove off. The woods were entirely still, but for soft snow, just beginning to fall. Working outside directly from nature brings a freshness to the drawing that working from a photograph simply cannot match. If you are interested in trying to sketch outside in winter, think about choosing a subject that you can get down on paper in a half-hour to 45 minutes. I also recommend overdressing for the cold. Even if you are warm while walking or wandering, once you stop, extra layers will buy you time to sketch for a longer period of time.
Several days ago, I got an unusual text-message from my son, asking how he might help a stunned Anna’s hummingbird that had struck his dorm window. Based on his description and a photo, it didn’t look good. The tiny jewel likely hit the glass at 30 miles per hour. Indeed, despite his best efforts, the bird died several hours later. Yesterday, I visited the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY, and decided to spend time among the hummingbirds in the collection. They, too, were quite dead…and nearly 150 years old. Despite their tattered appearance, specs of red, purple, gold and green flickered on their iridescent throats and backs. My lesson for the week is that, whether dying or dead, it’s hard to bring hummingbirds to life, but it is certainly worth trying.
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Surrounded by greenery even in January, what a treat to find this nest, perfectly sheltered in the crotch of a young white pine. A small grove of new trees has grown up in the unkempt neighboring field—a good find for birds looking for hidden places to raise their young. I like to think of new life hatching last summer when the field was golden and the sun was warmer than it is today.
Tips and Techniques– Try sketching while standing up. I drew this nest in pen while standing in the field and painted it later at home. Standing encourages the use of your entire arm, rather than just the hand and wrist, which helps to keep your sketches loose. Sketching in the cold also encourages you to work quickly and not fuss too much.
Today started unseasonably warm—an incredible 60-degrees—but slowly fell back into winter by nightfall. While the sun shone this afternoon and the temperature descended through the 50s, I wandered deep into the field. There, amidst matted goldenrod and thorny weeds, I had an unusually good find: several egg cases laid by praying mantises. Each one may contain as many as 400 tiny mantises. Like me, they will wait for a more lasting warmth, relying on spring to bring the field to life once again.