If you have never been to northern New England in the fall, you must put it on your bucket list and go. Blazing red and orange maples, yellow birch and aspen, and russet beech trees, set off by evergreens paint an extraordinary canvas. This is just about the end of “peak” season, as rain and wind subdue the palette each week. I consider myself lucky to have seen New York’s Adirondacks in a blaze of glory this weekend while at my nephew’s wedding. What a treat—on both counts.
Our list was long last weekend: paint the back porch railing, fix windowsills, repair broken glazing, prime bare trim, rake leaves, mow the lawn, mulch the gardens, brush hog the field edge, clean out the gutter, mount the rain diverter…you get the idea. It was a beautiful fall three-day weekend, perfect for a hike or bike ride, or for getting stuff done. That’s why you didn’t see a blog post and I didn’t pick up my sketchbook until the sun was sinking low on Monday afternoon. I went to a local conservation area, where the recently mown meadow glowed in the late-day light. In the margins that escaped the reaper, I was drawn to milkweed pods, now split open and brittle, their work done too, casting seeds on the breeze.
Tips and Techniques– I’m sure I’ve said this before, but don’t overlook the small stuff. There are so many times when just looking at a single plant proves fascinating. I sketched the milkweed directly in ink with a Micron 02 pen and then added a couple of watercolor washes of yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and cobalt blue. I used a bit of ultramarine, alizarin crimson, and burnt umber for the darkest shadows, stems, and seeds. Sometimes keeping the palette and the subject simple are what make the difference between completing a page or not.
Though the news this week that the Ivory-billed woodpecker, Bachman’s warbler and 21 other species were classified as “extinct” may not have come as a surprise, it was nonetheless disheartening. I pulled several old field guides from my shelf and found these prescient passages: “When man appears, the Ivory-bill disappears. This is not alone due to the destruction of the bird’s haunts but the bird’s shy, retiring nature. Its days are numbered even more surely than are those of the forests it inhabits” (What Bird is That? by Frank Chapman, 1941). “Many of its [Bachman’s warbler] former haunts are gone, and the demand for further lumber and drainage bode ill for what is perhaps the rarest of North American warblers” (Audubon Bird Guide, 1949). As these birds join the ranks of species gone forever, it seems right to not only mark their loss, but to pause for a moment to contemplate their once magnificent presence in a wilder America.
Tips and Techniques– While the idea of depicting these birds alive was appealing, I decided to convey their loss and the fact that seeing study skins and mounts is the only way we’ll ever know them. Bird skins (stuffed, unmounted dead birds) exist in many natural history collections and present an incredible way to look closely at bird anatomy, feathers, feet, and beaks. If you have the chance to work from skins, take it. What you learn will help you immeasurably when you paint birds from life.
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I should never have opened the seed pod. My desk was already littered with a growing fall collection, art supplies, field guides, and books I hadn’t put away. But it had been years since I opened a trumpet vine’s bean-like pod and I had forgotten what the seeds looked like. Of course, as soon as I split the case I remembered, just in time for an explosion of paper-thin seeds to scatter everywhere, as nature intended. I can also attest that the tiny round seeds of the yellow foxtail successfully dispersed, and I suspect I will be finding them for many weeks to come.
Tips and Techniques– Clean up your work surface every now and then so that you can enjoy a fresh start. Ha! That is my takeaway this week. But the other is to just go with what’s in front of you. You don’t need fancy subjects or perfect compositions. There’s beauty in the small and mundane, too. That’s one of the things I love about nature sketching. There is so much to discover right in front of you.
The field next to our property is in its full glory lately. Bees are buzzing in the goldenrod, asters are blooming in shades of white and purple, and tiny orange jewelweed dots the greenery. Numerous walnut trees border the field and frame the view. The chest high thicket is so dense that I won’t be able to walk in it until January, when the stems are brown, brittle, and matted from heavy snow. But for now, it is at its best, especially as the sun descends in the late afternoon, casting a golden light that reminds me in the most glorious way to pay attention.
Tips and Techniques– This piece takes advantage of an underlying grid to give it structure. I laid it out as a 4 x 3 grid of equal sized boxes and then combined boxes to suit the subject at hand. A limited palette of Hansa yellow medium, Prussian blue, quin gold, and a touch of violet and quin rose also create cohesion among the major elements. You can learn more and see other examples of this technique here and here.
Did you know that a group of hummingbirds is called a shimmer? Hummingbirds don’t “flock” together, the way many bird species do, so several names have come to describe them as a group. You can also call them a charm, a glittering, a tune, a bouquet, or a hover. Truth be told, I have only seen hummingbirds individually of late, but painting several in different positions seemed a better way to capture their movement, beauty, and vitality.
Tips and Techniques– When you are painting birds, do you ever overwork them to the point of killing them on paper? With such complex feather patterns and colors, that’s not an uncommon thing to do. It’s exactly what happened on my first attempt at painting hummingbirds last week. I immediately got too tight, and soon the birds looked static and lifeless. Even though I had invested several hours in the painting, I decided it would be better to start over than to press on. I began again by doing gesture drawings (right) from life and from videos which forced me to convey the bird’s incredible postures and movements, rather than details and colors. From there, I started a second painting (above), working more loosely this time. The lesson: don’t be afraid to let a bird go and begin again if your painting isn’t working.
Join me for FACING BIRDS HEAD ON (via Zoom), a free program on Friday, September 17, 10:00-11:30 AM Pacific Time/1:00-2:30 PM Eastern Time at
Winslow Art Center, and TAPPING AUDUBON’S PASSION: Sketching Birds in Watercolor
Thursday, September 23, 2-5pm (via Zoom) at
Currier Museum of Art. Details on the Workshops page.
Too rainy, too humid, too buggy, too many other things to do; so it is that August is nearly over and I haven’t sketched in my garden since June. Determined not to miss the purple hyacinth vine climbing over the garden arbor, inviting me in as intended, I finally took pen and paint to paper. Thank goodness. In the process, I got lost in shades of lavender and magenta, and found a lovely world for the moment. What a good reason to become a gardener or an artist, or both.
Tips and Techniques- I like picking a single flower species and sketching it many times on the same page. I look for some choice blooms as well as ones that are starting to fade or have already gone to seed. Not only do I like learning about the plant, but I also enjoy the challenge of creating a pleasing composition with repeating forms, patterns, and colors. Give it a try. Pick one of your favorite blooms and really look at it. Take Georgia O’Keefe’s words to heart and make it your world for the moment.
HEADS UP! Winslow Art Center is offering a month of free events during September as a show of appreciation to its class participants and an introduction to its programming. Everyone is welcome to sign up– not just former students. Check out the great lineup. I am offering Facing Birds Head On, on September 17.
You have to be in the right place at the right time to see a common nighthawk. Even then, you need to be lucky. Nighthawks are nocturnal birds that fly at dusk over fields, ballparks, cities and towns, hawking insects in the air with quick wingbeats interrupted by soaring, swooping, and gliding. At first glance you might mistake one for a large bat. But then it soars or dives and you think, no, that’s a bird. Unfortunately, common nighthawks are no longer common—they’ve suffered a 60-percent decline in population since the 1960s. I’ve seen one on only four occasions. So, I felt especially lucky to witness one in flight this week after getting a late-evening ice cream cone at a local farm market. A doubly good treat.
Tips and Techniques– I love doing this kind of journal page where inspiration and learning come together. Next time you see something you don’t know much about, sketch it, and then do some research. Add notes right on the page. You’ll be much more likely to remember your experience and retain what you learn.
UPCOMING WORKSHOPS: Tapping Audubon’s Passion: Sketching Birds in Watercolor, Thursday, September 23, 2-5pm (via Zoom), and the Olana Plein Air Festival, in person on Saturday, September 25 at the Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, NY. Visit the Workshops page to learn more.
If seeing harbor seals lazing on seaweed draped rocks isn’t awesome enough, hearing them growling at each other and splashing at rivals in a full-on water fight ranks high on my list of Maine vacation experiences. This group of about 40 seals hauls out to rest on the same rocky ledges at low tide each day. I sketched them on two separate days; first, from a place on shore where I used binoculars to view them, and the second time from a closer rocky outcrop that we reached by canoe. Tucked in among the rocks myself, I could see them much better, but still needed binoculars for better views.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), harbor seals haul out to regulate their body temperature, molt, interact with other seals, give birth, and nurse their pups.
It looks like the seals are sitting on top of the water (above), but the rocks are just underneath them and are revealed as the tide continues to go out. You can see that there is a lot of color variation among this group of seals. When the rocks are visible (below), many blend in perfectly with the seaweed draped rocks. I especially liked the large white one whose fur gleamed golden in the sun. (Day 1 sketch below, Day 2 above)
Tips and Techniques: When you sketch from binoculars, you only get about six second to remember what you saw—hardly enough to make a detailed drawing. Still, if your subject weighs 250 pounds and isn’t moving quickly, you can make it work. Fortunately, the shapes and postures of seals are not too complicated, and they tend to rest in similar poses, so you can watch and sketch and wait for them to resume a pose if they move. When sketching from shore, I painted on location using an Etchr sketchbook with excellent watercolor paper. From the canoe and rocky ledge, I sketched in pencil only in my Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook and added text, watercolor, anatomy, and close up head shot later.
Islands all along the east coast are invaded each summer by lovers of sun, beaches, and beauty. DownEast Maine islands are no different, except that the beaches are rocky, the water is cold, and you’re likely to get a healthy dose of fog as well as sun. If you go far enough out to sea, you can add solitude to the list of attributes. We’ve found all of that on the island of Vinalhaven, which sits at the margin of Penobscot Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Here are a few pages from my recent retreat. You can find past Vinalhaven sketches here and here.
Tip Toe Mountain Park combines moss-carpeted spruce woods, rocky beaches with fascinating geology and seaweed draped rocks, and granite ledges with spectacular views. The occasional song of the hermit thrush or cry of the osprey overhead punctuate an otherwise silent forest.
Locals vs. Outsiders– There are tensions on any island between locals and summertime outsiders and the strain they place on finite resources and services. Demanding, entitled “summer jerks” as they are known on Vinalhaven are not appreciated. There are also insidious plant and animal invaders that can quickly damage ecosystems. I was dismayed to find this new outsider, the European black slug, which arrived only in 2018. I found it both fascinating and repulsive and I hate the thought of seeing more of them on the East coast in the future.
On the other hand, I was delighted to find the flowering ghost plant, Monotrope uniforma (you may also know it as Indian pipes) sprouting in the forest. This native species lacks chlorophyll and takes its sustenance from certain fungi which, in turn, are co-dependent on beech trees.
Along the Roadside are lots of hardy and familiar outsiders along with a few native eastern wildflowers that co-exist where poor soil or disturbance favor only the tenacious, as all islanders tend to be.
The Basin is a large and stunningly beautiful protected tidal basin, surrounded by rocky granite outcrops and spruce forest. We hiked and canoed there, and I’ll have some sketches of harbor seals to share when I finish them in the coming days.
Tips and Techniques– Mix it up on your next vacation. Try a variety of approaches, materials, and layouts to capture parts of your journey. I like having closeups mixed with maps and landscape views to convey my experiences and an overall sense of place.