I started this painting back in August when the season’s first apples appeared at the farmers market. There are 7,500 varieties of apples worldwide and I thought it would be fun to capture some of the ones grown here in New York State. I enthusiastically laid out the painting and started building up the forms of the fruit…and then a crisis of confidence swept in. What was I thinking? I’d only painted two apples successfully before. All of my other attempts ended up looking like round red balls with stems. How was I going to get eight apples to take shape? Just one miss and the whole painting would fall apart.
So I did what any self-respecting artist would do: I set it aside. I put the painting under a stack of other artwork. I left the apples in a bowl on my desk. Three weeks later, I realized it was time to have at it again or make applesauce.
It dawned on me that painting apples might not be much different than painting bird eggs, tomatoes, or other round objects that I had had success with. The key is to build up a good range of light to dark areas. Too little variation in values and the object looks flat. You’ve also got to know when to stop. Work it too long and the transparent layers of watercolor get muddy and lifeless.
I picked up the brush with renewed confidence. Leaving light areas light and adding darker shades, the fruit began to look dimensional. Once I had a good range of values, my final challenge was capturing the beautiful subtlety in the skin of each variety— streaks of color, tiny dots, and blemishes. I added final details using a pretty dry brush— and stopped. Last, I penned the text and the classic quote from English poet William Cowper (1731-1800).
Mmm…I’m satisfied. It’s apple season and I have something good to show for it.
(Watercolor on Arches 140lb cold press watercolor paper, 9×12”)
This page exists thanks to a broken mechanical hop separator— a most unfortunate thing for my friend Dieter of Helderberg Hop Farm, which resulted in a rather fun hop picking party for friends and neighbors. We gathered in a circle, hop vines heaped in the center. People came and went from early morning through late afternoon, filling crate after crate with cones. Picking hops is mundane, manual work—but the social aspect harkened back to earlier times. Hop picking has been part of making beer since 1079, though the invention of the mechanical harvester began to replace hand work in 1909.
Admittedly, I did less work than many. I couldn’t resist pulling out pen and journal. Unique experiences make perfect subjects. I loved drawing on the spot and then circling back to the page later to add color, do some research on hops, and write the text. If I was a drinking woman, I might appreciate the process all the more…but, alas, others will have to enjoy the fruit of all that labor when the beer is brewed.
Certain vegetables are much better painted than cooked. Beets fall into that category, as does Swiss chard and turnips. These lovely Nantes carrots with their green stems and long roots still attached begged to be memorialized on paper rather than consumed. I started with a very quick, but careful sketch, determined not to get too fussy with detail. I kept the first few washes of watercolor loose, too. That enabled me to suggest the lacy leaves, rather than get caught in exactitude and overwork the piece. Now that the painting is done, the carrots lay limp and inedible…but I wouldn’t want them any other way.
Watercolor on Fabriano hot press paper, 9”x12″
(Nantes carrots get their name from their place of origin in Nantes, France. They are sweeter than other varieties, but don’t have a long shelf life.)
OK, I admit it…I’m a dragonfly geek. While most people enjoy a boat ride or swim at my mother’s summer cottage, I’m often out rowing around in the hot, mucky backwater shallows in search of dragonflies. Sketching them is a highlight of my summer.
Dragonflies are exceptional flyers, which makes it particularly challenging to identify and sketch them in the field. But, like birds, dragonflies perch for short periods, often returning to the same spot between patrols. Some species perch longer than others and the position in which they perch– horizontal, at an angle, teed up, or straight down—is distinctive for each species…which helps with identification.
I got lucky last weekend when I rowed out in the late day sun in search of dragonflies. A number of Spotted Spreadwings—a new sighting for me– were perched at the water’s edge, hanging from willow leaves or small twigs. Spreadwings are more delicate than other types of dragonflies, and finding one feels like discovering a small jewel in the weedy margins of an August pond.
I also was treated to a fast flyby of a remarkably bright green and black female Eastern Pondhawk. A beauty!
I love the sheer mass of this old cottonwood, towering above younger trees in my neighbor’s abandoned field. Less than a year ago, its hollow trunk still supported most of its aging, weighty limbs. But summer storms recently brought a good portion of the giant to the ground.
At first sight, I was struck by its brokenness in the late day sunlight. Only later, I realized my shortsightedness. Trees, like people, can weather many storms—their character often enhanced by years and trials. Sending greenery skyward, they go on living—aged and scarred, but resilient.
Sketched on location in ink; watercolor wash and text added later.
I recently spent three days in Montreal and was eager to try my hand at sketching buildings and cafes and street scenes. Instead, I found myself challenged at every turn. With so much going on—so many people and so much activity—I hardly knew where to begin. My family had a full schedule of activities, and I thought I’d just sketch along the way, but that proved harder than I anticipated. I stole five minutes here and there—a pause while hiking, a moment before lunch, a few minutes at museums. The result, as you see, is a fairly random mix.
And so, I wonder, what’s the secret to urban sketching? No fuss? Work fast? Travel alone? Sketch anything? Sketch everywhere? Dedicate time? Or, perhaps, just stick with a camera next time!
In the interest of speed, I jettisoned my paints on the second day, in favor of a fountain pen and water brush. Both of these pages took less than 10 minutes and I added the colored background later.
I was fortunate to grow up with a grandmother who I adored. Though she took up painting in her later years, what she did best was nurture other people’s talents. She praised accomplishments, encouraged her grandchildren to explore the world, find things we liked, and pursue them.
When I was thirteen, she enrolled me in a plein air painting class. Everyone else in it was grown up. I painted a willow tree, struggling to see the red my instructor wanted me to add to the green leaves. My finished painting was not good, but it didn’t matter. My grandmother had planted a seed. She believed in me as an artist.
Now all these years later, I look at the August moon and she is back with me…looking up and out into that vast universe of possibilities, and encouraging me still.
(Watercolor, Stillman & Birn Beta 5.5 x 8.5”)
Farmers markets are an extravagant display of color and form at this time of year– the sheer abundance of summer’s harvest is astonishing! I went last weekend in search of both culinary and artistic treasures, and found a wealth of choices. Though tempted by the deep red-purple of beets and onions, I set those aside knowing that they would keep until winter. Instead, I selected some of August’s finest– ripe tomatoes, succulent apricots, and several varieties of the year’s first apples.
Fortunately, my family is well trained– they know not to delve in until the painting is done. But with this page complete, we can begin to enjoy one of the season’s simple pleasures.
(Watercolor and ink, Stillman & Birn- Beta journal)
What a find! My son and I recently hit the jackpot while exploring the tidal Slocum River on Massachusetts’s southern coast. There in the brackish water, among feeding barnacles and clam siphons protruding from the muddy bottom, we spied them: floating, iridescent, pulsating jellies! At first one, then two, and when our eyes adjusted to deciphering clear bodies in the water column, twenty or more. They ranged from dime-sized to golf-ball sized and we watched them, mesmerized, until hunger sent us in search of lunch.
I later learned that comb jellies are not jellyfish. Though they share some characteristics—like gelatinous bodies made of two major cell layers—these ancient creatures hail from distinct phyla: comb jellies are ctenophores, jellyfish are cnidarians. Comb jellies are propelled through the water not by propulsion, but by the action of thousands of tiny cilia that line their bodies. When light is refracted by the moving cilia it results in a beautiful rainbow of pulsating light.
This journal page is my attempt to capture the experience and also serves as field notes for learning about comb jellies. (Stillman & Birn Beta journal, 5.5×8.5, watercolor, ink, and alcohol to create the textural effect.)
It’s tough to keep up a sketchbook when traveling by bicycle! But here’s the result of my recent 400 mile, 8-day cycling trip along the Erie Canal in New York State. (You can click on the image to enlarge it a bit.) Because I needed to cover 50 to 60 miles a day, I found it impossible to sketch until the riding was done. No matter how tired, I made a point of extending the schematic map eastward each evening, filling in some of the day’s adventures in words or pictures.
Packing light was essential! I brought a black Micron 02 pen, a small watercolor kit, water brush, and 5”x8” Moleskin watercolor sketchbook packed in a ziplock bag. The birds and bicycles page (below)– a record of all the birds I’ve seen while cycling– was completed back at home.