Drawn In

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.

Coming Full Circle

Red-winged Blackbird nest

1969. Forty-five years ago, an enthusiastic young birder named Scott Stoner found and kept watch over a red-winged blackbird nest in a field near his home. When eggs and parent birds disappeared one mid-June day, he took it. Scott mounted the nest to a piece of cardboard, signed his name, dated it, and put it on display in a nature museum in his basement. He was 12 years old.

Three weeks ago, I found Scott’s nest. It was still mounted to that piece of now-yellowed cardboard, tucked away in a long-forgotten cabinet in an outbuilding at a local nature center. I was drawn to the beauty of the nest, but also to the date it was collected and to the stories it held. After drawing the nest, I decided to track down Scott Stoner.

That’s how I know about the 12-year-old and the basement museum. As it turns out, Scott pursued a career in conservation, donated some of his basement collection to the nature center years ago, and became an expert bird photographer.

Nest to art, artist to collector: how satisfying to come full circle.

This journal entry is a tribute to eager young naturalists. May they find treasures that spark our sense of wonder for years to come.

Nest Demonstration

Song Sparrow Nest (final)“What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure…”

I love finding bird nests – in spring and summer when birds are actively nesting, in fall and winter when once-hidden nests appear, and in nature centers and museums, where nests are as likely to be on display as they are hidden in cabinets or backroom storage.

I recently borrowed several nests from a local nature center to use for a demonstration I was invited to give at the Bethlehem Art Association (Delmar, NY). This is the painting that resulted, but I thought I’d also share my progression from early stages to completion so you can see how I built the nest on paper.

Stage 1: Nest

Stage 1: I very loosely sketched the nest with a Micron 02 black pen and then added a wash of yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and cobalt blue. My aim at this stage was to get some structure on the page and begin to establish some color and a sense of where lights and darks would be. It’s important to know where lighter strands will cross in front of dark ones, so they can be left light as darker shades are added.

Stage 2: Nest

Stage 2: I’ve added more detail to the nest, weaving more grasses and twigs in both pen (Micron 005) and watercolor. I’ve darkened the inner cup and the outer right side to build dimension and left the left side of the nest very loosely defined.

Stage 3: Nest

Stage 3: More detail, more darks, a bit of spatter, and a strand of grass coming out at the lower right to bring a piece of nesting materials into the space where I’ll incorporate text.

Song Sparrow Nest (final)

Stage 4: Though I don’t always add a shadow, I especially liked the way this one echoed the loose strands of grass. I wrote the text first on tracing paper to figure out the spacing and line breaks, and then penned them directly on the page.

Einstein’s words seemed especially fitting for this piece. There are several other magnificent structures in a box by my desk—you may be seeing more of them in the coming weeks.

Eastern Pondhawk Dragonfly

Eastern Pondhawk

What a great sighting! A female eastern pondhawk zoomed into view during a dragonfly reconnaissance outing several weeks ago (see “Searching for Dragonflies”). It was my first time seeing one and their green color is truly remarkable. Like many species of dragonflies, male and female pondhawks have different colors and patterns, which make them fun to paint side by side.

For a precise painting like this, I like to do the species at its actual size—in this case, about 1.5 inches each. That makes small brushes essential! I used sizes 3, 1, and 0. It also means that I’ve got to decide how detailed to make the wings. Do I really want to paint every vein? Not so much. At this scale, so many lines might make the wings too busy or make them lose their papery texture. Instead, I like to simply suggest the main wing structure and use layers of watercolor and a little scraping at the final stage to add a sense of light and texture.

Autumn spells the end of dragonfly season in the Northeast, so I’m especially glad this painting took shape before they disappear from ponds and fields. Here’s to next year’s hatch out!

(For another view of dragonflies, see also “Common Darners“)

Just the basics

Art SuppliesIt might have been easier simply to list my paint color palette when recently asked about it by an artist friend, but where’s the fun in that? I hadn’t sketched art supplies in years, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity. What I especially love about my basic art kit is that it I can get so much from it. Almost every painting and journal sketch I’ve ever made has sprung from these simple materials (add an F pencil and kneaded eraser for my detailed paintings). These supplies are as simple as they are portable– they fit in a 4×9-inch zippered pouch that tucks easily into a backpack or handbag. I’ve carried them into fields, forests, stream sides, rocky tide pools, and cities. How great is that?

A few notes:

  • I bought this Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolor set long ago and, over the years, swapped in artist grade paints and changed out colors to better suit my liking.
  • Ultramarine blue is a must have. It mixes beautifully with just about everything else to get an incredible range of colors.
  • I rarely use cadmium red; it’s likely the next color to get swapped out.
  • What’s that lovely background color? It’s my most recent addition to the palette: Quinacridone Gold from Daniel Smith.
  • Although I’m a minimalist compared to many, I love art supplies as much as the next artist. I’ve tried all kinds of pencils, colored pencils, watercolor pencils, pastels, acrylics, intense watercolors, and inks. I just keep coming back to basics.
  • What’s next? I’m pining for an old, black metal Prang watercolor box that can hold larger sized pans of color. I’ll paint it when I own one someday.

Apple Season


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”)

Picking Hops

HopsThis 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.

Good enough to…paint

carrotsCertain 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.)

Searching for Dragonflies

Spreadwing Dragonfly
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!