In springtime, birds tuck their nests into dense foliage and tangled vines. In fall, I try to find as many nests as I can. It is a game of hide and seek in which the birds always win. Still, I walk in woods and fields and along the roadside, taking new paths, looking from new angles, scanning the trees. I count every nest as a victory; a way to understand the place where I live and the creatures that inhabit it. Alas, it is no easy task. Though I think I am paying attention, here are two recent finds that prove otherwise. I walked past these two nests several times a week all summer and fall without seeing a thing.
Tips and Techniques– Most birds—and their eggs, feathers, and nests—are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The law ensures the sustainability of populations of all protected migratory bird species. Unless you have a permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, you should not collect these things. Instead, sketch them where you find them, take a photo, and leave them in place. In addition, seek out nature centers and natural history museums that have a permit. Their collections are invaluable to educators, researchers, students, and artists.
I’m thrilled to share the news that my book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, is now available. Geared for ages 10+, it invites kids to begin a lifelong journey of nature exploration with ideas, tips, and plenty of space to sketch. Launching a book makes you think about the people and experiences that were critical to launching you— family, relatives, teachers, friends. People who believed in you; people who were hard on you; or, in my case, people who encouraged me not to hide my sketchbooks in a drawer.
My grandmother, more than anyone, is responsible for nurturing my creative tendencies and interest in the Arts. A painter herself, she praised my earliest attempts at drawing and painting. She enrolled me in a plein air painting class for adults when I was just entering high school (I was in WAY over my head). She displayed a clunky clay mask that I made in art class in her living room! She shared her curiosity and enthusiasm and nurtured that in me.
If there are young people in your life, think about ways to nurture their sense of wonder and creativity. If that means giving them The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, wonderful. Better still, add a box of colored pencils, and spend time together discovering how big and beautiful the world is if we only go outside to look.
Use special discount code “nature25” and receive 25% off from 11/1 through 11/6 when you order from Tumblehome Books. Or order from your local bookseller with ISBN# 9781943431595, or at Amazon.
JOIN ME THIS WEEK ON ZOOM
Look, See, Sketch, 11/4, 5-5:45pm (EST) FREE
Register: Tumblehome Books
This Zoom session is for youth and adults alike who enjoy exploring nature or drawing or both. We’ll talk about The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, and you’ll have a chance to ask questions and draw along with me as I share some activities and tips from the book to spark your curiosity.
11/5, 10am (PST)/1pm (EST) FREE
Register: Winslow Art Center
Come talk art and creativity with me and Winslow Art Center Director Martha Jordan.
You never know what you’ll find out on the roadside. Although I walk the same two-mile loop frequently, few days are ever the same. Subtle changes shift one week into the next, one season into another. Noticing is the art of going.
My recent walks have been in the late afternoon; wind picking up, sun low on the horizon. The flowers and grasses have gone to seed, a few bunches of wild grapes are left for the birds. It’s a good time to capture the moment: October in its final fading days. November is coming fast.
Admittedly, this next page is an unusual addition to this post.I came upon a dead barred owl lying in the grassy margin of the roadside, clearly struck by a car or truck. Daylight was fading fast, but the owl was so absolutely beautiful that I couldn’t let it go. If I didn’t paint it then, the opportunity might be gone. There was only time to capture a fleeting impression of feathers, but that seemed a fitting way to acknowledge the life and the loss.
More than half of the autumn leaves are on the ground now where I live, which means two things: lots of raking and beautiful colors littering the woods. It doesn’t take long for leaves to dry out and fade, so I have forsaken the rake in favor of the paint brush. A good choice, don’t you think?
Tips and Techniques– Leaf “portraits” like this are a good way to practice painting skills. They force you to work on getting crisp edges, mix subtle color variations, and use both wet-in-wet and dry brush techniques. I started with a light pencil drawing and then a wet-in-wet wash to establish the lightest colors and define the shapes. I continued with three or four more layers to deepen and adjust the colors and add texture. Adding a shadow gives these a bit more dimension. There are a lot of leaves out there to choose from—have a go!
I love the way autumn builds to its peak color, first slowly, then with bold strokes. The reds and oranges are showstoppers, but it’s the yellows that hold it all together. Birch, walnut, hickory, cottonwood, beech, poplar, aspen, gingko, sassafras—all yellow. But my favorite is the luminous golden leaves of the bitternut, which come into their own in mid-October and quickly sail away like so many paper kites in gusts of wild wind.
Tips and Techniques– An all yellow subject is a bit tricky. The color is so light on the value scale, but you still need to create variations from light to dark for interest and depth. I used aureolin and quin gold, two very transparent yellows, as a base, and added burnt sienna and burnt umber for deeper tones. The shadows are cobalt blue. Keeping the entire palette transparent was important for avoiding heavy or murky yellows.
It’s apple season here in New York; the time for picking apples and drinking cider and making pies. But for sketching, I prefer to leave the perfect apples for others and seek out wild and wind fallen fruit. Like Thoreau, I find almost all wild apples handsome. They are beautiful not in spite of their misshapen and knotted appearance, but because of it.
I recently had the honor of being interviewed by Bethan Burton for an episode of the Journaling with Nature podcast. We talk about my approach to sketching, my love of subjects that are often overlooked, and about my book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook. Everyone should be interviewed by someone as sweet as Bethan. Her soft Australian accent and ability to put you at ease makes the conversation flow and leave you feeling like you’ve gained a friend.
Give a listen here: or search for Journaling With Nature wherever you listen to podcasts. You can find it on Apple, Google, and Spotify.
Bird feathers- wow! Form, function, and beauty in one perfect package. And so much variety and complexity of patterns that my head is spinning. I’ve been preparing for my upcoming class on The Art of the Bird by gathering resources and reference material and working out painting exercises. Painting these feathers gave me a whole new appreciation for the simplicity of the form and the challenge of rendering them well.
Tips and Techniques– If you’d like to make your head spin with a dizzying array of bird feathers, check out The Feather Atlas. The online image database is dedicated to the identification and study of the flight feathers of North American birds. The feathers illustrated are from the curated collection of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory. You can look up birds by species or browse the collection. Check out the owls or the nighthawks for starters- either one will leave you marveling.
Fall is here, but the final blooms of zinnias and Mexican sunflowers continue in the garden, along with a tangle of scarlet runner bean and cypress vines. I’m hoping that the remaining tomatoes ripen before we get a hard frost. Perhaps there will be one more journal page to mark the end of the season. But just in case, the last of the show seems well deserving of a late season tribute.
Tips and Techniques– I could have selected only the finest remaining blooms for this sketch, but it wouldn’t have reflected the reality of the tangled mess or plants in various stages of bloom and decay that mark the October garden. So, while you may be tempted to paint a beautiful bouquet (and there’s nothing wrong with that), consider the value of marking the seasons and showing the imperfect reality that is inherent in a fall garden (and life itself).
At 5 o’clock, the sun was already low on the horizon, casting a golden light that would blaze for a short while more and then vanish. After eight hours at my desk, I quickly closed my laptop, picked up my sketchbook, and headed to a nearby preserve to immerse myself in what remained of a perfect fall day. I didn’t walk far before being surrounded by the colors of the season. Dark trunks of old sugar maples cloaked in a perfect glory of yellow, orange, green, and russet lined the old carriage road that marks the boundary of the preserve. I wish I could have taken you along to see the display, but this sketch will have to do.
Tips and Techniques—Sometimes you only have an hour (or less), a perfectly golden hour, in which to make a mark on a page. Tackling a big subject like a line of trees and fall foliage wouldn’t typically be my go-to subject for such a short time. But because it was truly THE subject of the moment, I decided to take the leap. Eliminating the more complicated branches of this scene made it more doable—though I wish I had included just a little more height. I sketched in the trees in pencil and painted the colorful leaves and ground with a waterbrush while on the path. The impression of color and light seemed like the most important element to capture in the moment. Back at home, I added the dark trunks and shadows. The thin border and text were important finishing elements, containing the sketch and anchoring it in time and place.
I’m thrilled to share the news that The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, due out November 1, received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. This professional book reviewing service is a big player in the book world. Over the years, Kirkus has established a reputation for exacting, frank reviews. Earning a Kirkus star is coveted top honor. Like a Michelin guide for books, Kirkus Reviews helps good books get attention and offers booksellers and librarians a way to sort through all the new books published and select the ones they want on their shelves.
The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook will appear in the October 1 issue of Kirkus Reviews Magazine.
I thought you might like a glimpse behind the scenes to see how a book page takes shape from rough idea to final artwork. I wanted the book to have the look and feel of a sketchbook, so I started with thumbnail sketches to consider artwork possibilities, text, and layout. The best thumbnails became more detailed pencil sketches, and then full watercolor illustrations. (Click to view larger.)
Coming Soon! New online class: The Art of the Bird: Eggs, Feathers, and Nests offered at the Winslow Art Center; Tuesdays, Nov 10, 17, 24, Dec 1, 6-8pm (EST). Registration opens later today or tomorrow and will be limited to 12 participants. I’ll also be doing a FREE Art Chat on November 5 at 1pm (EST).