Drawn In

Undesirable Beauties

Horsenettle

Click for larger view

I was drawn to the golden orbs of the horsenettle while hiking last week in an old field on the edge of an orchard. Bright spots of yellow against faded, brown grasses and dried wildflowers, I decided to take a stem home to paint. Upon identification, I was not surprised to learn that the plant is invasive and unwanted, as are many plants that grow in the weedy margins of fields.

Still, I love the way the fruit drapes from the tendrilous vines and there is something ironic, yet masterful in a poisonous plant that protects itself with thorns. Once I painted the horsenettle, I wanted to round out the page with other undesirable beauties of fields and orchards. This trio of moths is found in the Northeast: the yellow-necked caterpillar moth is destructive to apple trees, the larval grapeleaf skeletonizer does just as its name implies, and the fall webworm caterpillar, while not particularly damaging, forms unsightly nests on tree limbs.

Sketchbook detail

Sketchbook detail

Sage Advice

Chickadee-Study web_jmackay

“Day after day never fail to draw something which, however little it may be, will yet in the end be much.”  — Cennino Cennini  c. 1390

It’s comforting to know that people have been struggling to draw and paint well for centuries. Cennini’s advice is just as true today as it was 600 years ago. I’ve spent the last week watching, drawing and painting chickadees, trying to capture the shape, color, and spirit of this little songster. It isn’t easy.

Chickadees are not very cooperative subjects. Unlike finches, which will perch at a bird feeder and eat, chickadees never stick around. At my feeders, they flit to a nearby branch, survey the feeder, swoop in–pause for a second—grab a seed, look up and fly off to eat elsewhere. The whole maneuver takes about six seconds. But to their credit, chickadees are bold. When I stood three feet from the feeder to photograph them, chickadees were among the few birds that continued to feed.

I did these sketches and the small painting below from life and from photos. I have more to do to really capture the bird to my satisfaction, but I am taking Cennini’s advice to heart, hoping that yet in the end, all this practice will amount to much.
Black-capped Chickadee

The Best Intentions

Sunday

Gray. Damp. Cold. It’s been a jolt to go from the brilliant warmth of autumn to chill snow-in-the-air November. Still, I was determined to get out and sketch birds today. I filled the bird feeders. Nothing came. I went to the nature center and walked the trails. Few birds appeared. Cold and defeated, I returned home and took consolation in cinnamon buns and coffee. But I couldn’t resist adding this chickadee to the page. I sketched him from an old photo, which made it a bit challenging to get him to sit just right on the rim of the pan. No matter. I realize that my favorite Sundays are filled with baked goods and art…and so I end the day satisfied.

Drawing Donuts

Cider donuts

If donuts don’t immediately strike you as artistic subjects, you’re not alone. I got a few passing glances from the staff of the farm café and bakery when I sat down with my hot cider and bag of donuts and proceeded to paint them. Fortunately, it was an hour from closing time and the café was pretty deserted, so I sat contentedly savoring the quiet moment.

This page illustrates what I like best about keeping an artist journal. Freed from the pressure of making a “finished” piece of artwork, my journal is a place to play and to practice. It’s a place where I learn about all sorts of things, or simply record day-to-day experiences and places. A page of donuts can follow a page of trees or birds or barns…and it’s all good.

Fresh from the Farm

Apple Pair

Indian Ladder Farms is a much beloved place in our community. Few people I know haven’t picked the farm’s apples in fall, brought their kids to pet baby animals as a rite of spring, or eaten their share of cider donuts over the years. We’ve watched outdoor community theatre under the backdrop of orchard and escarpment, picked out our Christmas trees in winter, and frequented the farm’s gift shop for birthdays and special occasions. Indian Ladder Farms has been in operation since 1915 and it is treasured by generations.

Why I’ve never thought to sketch there escapes me. Maybe it’s that I’m always there for some other purpose, or maybe it’s that I like going when it’s raining and quiet. That changed this week, when I went to Indian Ladder twice—and solely for artistic purposes.

Here are the results of what I hope are many more sketching excursions at the farm. More barns, apples, vistas, and maybe a donut or two are in store.
Indian Ladder Barns

I wanted practice with perspective and Indian Ladder’s main barns proved a worthy challenge. On my second trip, I focused on the farm’s Flemish giant rabbit. The Flemish giant is a massive breed by any measure, standing about 2 1/2 feet tall, which it does, on occasion, when not bounding around its cage, grooming itself or nibbling at children’s handouts. This was my first time drawing a rabbit and you can see some improvement from left side to right.
Indian Ladder rabbit

Pear Portrait

Seckel Pears

Beautiful form, beautiful color. Is it any wonder that pears have been artistic subjects for ages? From Roman mosaics to Renaissance religious paintings, from woodcuts and engravings of the 17th and 18th centuries to Impressionist paintings in the 19th century– the pear proves a worthy subject.

When I see pears at the market or a farm stand, I can’t resist buying them. I don’t care that much about eating them. Not that a good pear isn’t heavenly. I just feel compelled to paint them. But pears, like apples, are tricky. Seemingly simple, I find it hard to get the form to take shape on paper without overworking it. Like the real thing, one minute the fruit is fresh and the next it’s rotten. Stopping when you’ve got a good thing is key. This painting of seckel pears is right on the edge. And though this is no masterpiece, I’m happy to add my attempt to the fruit’s artistic legacy.

Grief and Glory

Sugar Maple, Oakwood Cemetery
The last blaze of autumn’s glory is upon us in upstate New York. Gold, crimson, bronze, and green hang on, even after several days of wind and rain. Among the best places to see the show, I knew, would be in one of my area’s oldest and grandest rural cemeteries – Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, New York. Established in early 1848, Oakwood’s monuments are dwarfed by towering oaks, maples, beech, and hickories. How fitting, then, to paint there just two days after a longtime family friend died of cancer. In retrospect, I suppose it was no accident. It was the perfect place to contemplate a life now gone and to take solace in the radiant glory of fall’s last days.

Pulling Light from Dark

I recently went to a demonstration by an artist who specializes in charcoal drawings of figures and drapery. Totally not my interest, truth be told, but the elegance of light on dark paper inspired me to try using toned paper. The results surprised me. I liked the simple, back-to-basic quality of working with just dark (in this case, dark umber) and white to render the Eastern phoebe.

Eastern phoebe, toned paper
Pulling light out of the toned paper felt like such a magical thing. I wanted to see how it would be to bring a mostly white subject to life– hence, the common tern (below, with a plug for my Arts and Birding Workshop in 2015—registration is open!). Again, the simplicity of form and light really appealed to me. Since I usually work in just the opposite way— building up darks with watercolor on white paper— this change of pace is refreshing and fun.

Common Tern- Arts & Birding (Prismacolor colored pencils—white and dark grey, with a touch of yellow and red for the bill, on Strathmore Artagain gray paper)

Grown Wild

Sugar Maple

I came upon this sugar maple while hiking at a nature preserve and was quickly drawn in by its spreading lower limbs. Consider what a rare thing it is to see a tree like this. In nurseries and residential yards and farm fields alike, lower branches are commonly lobbed off— for aesthetics or safety or ease of mowing underneath. Grown wild, this beauty’s lower limbs stretch improbably far outward and upward. With most of its leaves already lying in a carpet of orange and brown on the ground, it was easier to see its structure fully and to enjoy the play of light and shadow across its branches. I had less than an hour of sketching time, so I decided to focus on capturing the maple’s form, rather than attempt a full painting. I then added just a touch of watercolor later to suggest the warmth of the late day sun.

Keeping it simple

Milkweed journal

This was one of those weeks where art took a back seat to everything else I needed to cram into my life. So when a few hours presented themselves yesterday, I knew I had to seize the moment. Choosing a fairly simple subject would give me chance to focus…and to finish. I really wanted to complete at least one page and be able to move on. Unfortunately, while I found the common milkweed a joy to draw, it was much more challenging to paint than I had anticipated. What color are those seed pods anyway? Yellowish-green turning to gray-brown with hints of blue and burnt sienna. And how to capture the silky wisps of seeds exploding out and floating on the wind? My first attempt ended in a murky overworked sketch that I finally decided could not be rescued. What you see here, is my second go. And now I can turn the page once again and start a new adventure.