It can be hard to find the time for art when life gets busy. A whole painting or even an entire journal page can seem impossible to undertake. So I made a grid on these pages in the hope that I would be able to fill smaller spaces over the course of several days. As it turned out, I drew the entire two-page spread during an hour-long hike, pausing every so often to do a quick sketch when something caught my eye. Done directly in pen, each sketch took no more than a few minutes. I added color and text back at home.
Some artistic tips:
- Making a grid is a worthwhile exercise, though it did leave me feeling a little boxed in. Make the rules, but feel free to break them, as I did, by going beyond the boxes as you see fit.
- Use the grid to your advantage. I found it especially useful in forcing me to put pen to paper without fussing, but I have seen other artists fill grid squares carefully, to excellent effect.
- Consider having a unified theme that ties the elements together. Your theme may be a particular place, experience, or even experiments with a single sketching medium.
- The risk of a grid is that if one of the elements doesn’t turn out to your liking, the entire page may suffer. That’s fine if you are experimenting and not a perfectionist in your art journal. I like some of the sketches on this page more than others, and I can live with that because my aim was to simply record quick impressions of a particular moment in time.
Page done in Stillman and Birn Zeta journal, with Micron black pen and watercolor at Indian Ladder Farms, New Scotland, NY
The Egg Case
Had I lived in the late-1800s, there’s a good chance I would have been a bird egg collector. Backyard collecting, exchanges, and sales were popular during the Victorian era, and I can see easily the appeal of amassing a collection to study and admire. But since collecting became illegal with the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918 (thankfully!), I rely on museum collections for an occasional egg fix.
I sketched this section of a much larger display at the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY. I only had about 30 minutes, so I sketched directly in pen and painted later at home, using a photo and reference books for the colors and patterns. If I were doing a careful painting, I would work in pencil first so that I could get the edges of each egg smooth and clean. But in this case, that kind of accuracy didn’t matter to me—I just wanted to have fun collecting on paper.
Celebrating One Year! On another note, it’s been year since I started I this blog and I want to thank you for following it! I began with a couple of posts on bird nests and eggs, so perhaps it’s fitting to come full circle and be back on that theme a year hence. I love hearing your thoughts, so keep on commenting…and share the blog as you see fit to widen its reach.
Every year, I wait for the first warm rainy night in April, excited as a kid anticipating Santa Claus. That’s because this is the night of the annual salamander migration. Under the cover of rainy darkness, salamanders come out of the forest en masse and crawl to wetlands and small ponds to breed. It’s the one night of the year when I get to see these ancient creatures doing what they have done for millions of years.
I recruit a team of hardy souls and go to a spot where a road bisects woods and wetland. Salamanders have no choice but to cross. The traffic is light, but even a few cars can cause a lot of carnage. Flashlights in hand, we patrol the road, look for small waggling objects, and deliver them quickly to the other side. We identify and count the species we see— Jefferson, spotted, four-toed, red-backed, plus spring peepers and wood frogs. On a good night, we may find 20 or more in an hour.
Except this year… the only salamanders I get to see are the ones on this page. That’s because there have been no steady early evening rains, only rain after midnight (and I’m not crazy enough to trade sleep for rain and amphibians). Salamanders have crossed into a new season, and I’ll have to wait a whole year to see them again.
March, March, March
Every year it happens. I arrive at March needing so much more than the month can give. After a long winter, I am desperate to explore and draw and BE outside. I am desperate for the fuel of discovery and growth that sparks my creativity. March never delivers. It is too cold and too wet. I am tired of brown. I am tired of gray. The only thing to do is to forgive myself this artistic low point and wait.
I went back through my journals from the last few years to compare Marches. The pages are thin and mostly the same– each year a record of small gains: pussy willows in bud, the woodcock’s return, a wooly-bear caterpillar in the driveway. And though spring is behind this year, I am glad to have these pages to remind me that incremental progress will take us out of this March too.
Wings, skulls, feathers, skeletons, legs, specimens, live birds, bird paintings. I’ve got birds on the brain! To prepare for several upcoming workshops I am teaching on drawing birds, I’ve been brushing up on bird anatomy and biology, drawing skulls and bones, and watching and painting birds. Best of all, I made a trip to the New York Historical Society to see Audubon’s Aviary, John James Audubon’s original watercolors for the print edition of The Birds of America (1827–38), engraved by Robert Havell Jr.
Though I’ve seen reproductions of Audubon’s engravings many times, I was thoroughly taken by the beauty and mastery of the original paintings. Audubon used a combination of graphite, watercolor, gouache, pastel, and glazing to create hundreds of life-sized birds, each one rendered in minute detail. Among my favorites was a simple painting of a male and female dark-eyed junco and a clay-colored sparrow, rendered with no background.
Back home, I decided to finish a small study of an Eastern Phoebe using the highly detailed approach that Audubon used in his paintings. I applied layers of very dry watercolor with the smallest brush in the arsenal— a size 0 — to complete the details. Thankfully, the phoebe is a very plain bird– I can hardly imagine painting intricate feather patterns on hundreds and hundreds of birds, as Audubon did.
Compare this sketch with the much looser painting (below) of a phoebe and nest that I did several weeks ago. In this painting, I was trying to convey subtleties of color and light, rather than paint every detail.
Both styles have merit. I like knowing how birds are built; I like being detailed and accurate; but I also like the idea of jumping off from there, of letting some of the details go and allowing the wet paint to do the work. The later approach seems to be more evocative and engaging — and yet, just as elusive and hard to achieve as painting every feather.
I was initially drawn in by the fruit, but how could I resist the ungainly bird? It’s been 29 years since I went to New Zealand, tasted my first kiwi fruit, saw the national bird, and explored North and South Islands for nearly three months. I thought I’d get back there sooner, but the years and the miles have not allowed it. Isn’t it funny how a simple taste, smell, or touch can transport you to places and release memories from long ago? Is it any wonder that drawing (and eating) a kiwi after a prolonged winter and too much time close to home brought me nearly 10,000 miles to the other side of the globe?
There isn’t a winter that goes by without losing a glove. Worst of all, I even saw this one lying on the ground as I got back in the car at a Thruway rest stop. “Geez, it’s too bad someone lost a glove. I hate that,” I thought, not recognizing that the glove was mine. Ugh! When I got home and realized my stupidity, it was too late. But for some inexplicable reason, I wasn’t able to throw out the orphan glove. It’s been sitting above our coat rack for three weeks—until yesterday. That’s when artist Laure Ferlita posted a fine tutorial on drawing garden gloves and it inspired me to memorialize my annual glove loss and move on. Thank you Laure!
Owl in Sneakers
And now for something completely different…
I’ve been experimenting with developing this small, quirky character Owl in Sneakers. The basic features came to me late last summer, and I thought it might be fun to play around and see what he might become.
I figured out the body shape, eyes, pigeon-toed feet with red sneakers, and potted geranium fairly quickly. But making him move and do things and express emotion has been trickier. So far, I’ve been able to make him read and play hockey, and I’ve been test driving various concepts with my niece and nephew (who think he should play an instrument, like the tuba or trombone, and concur with me that he needs a red wagon and friend, perhaps an ermine). What comes next? I’m not sure. But I’m open to suggestions.
(Watercolor on aquaboard, 5×5”)