Farmers markets are an extravagant display of color and form at this time of year– the sheer abundance of summer’s harvest is astonishing! I went last weekend in search of both culinary and artistic treasures, and found a wealth of choices. Though tempted by the deep red-purple of beets and onions, I set those aside knowing that they would keep until winter. Instead, I selected some of August’s finest– ripe tomatoes, succulent apricots, and several varieties of the year’s first apples.
Fortunately, my family is well trained– they know not to delve in until the painting is done. But with this page complete, we can begin to enjoy one of the season’s simple pleasures.
(Watercolor and ink, Stillman & Birn- Beta journal)
What a find! My son and I recently hit the jackpot while exploring the tidal Slocum River on Massachusetts’s southern coast. There in the brackish water, among feeding barnacles and clam siphons protruding from the muddy bottom, we spied them: floating, iridescent, pulsating jellies! At first one, then two, and when our eyes adjusted to deciphering clear bodies in the water column, twenty or more. They ranged from dime-sized to golf-ball sized and we watched them, mesmerized, until hunger sent us in search of lunch.
I later learned that comb jellies are not jellyfish. Though they share some characteristics—like gelatinous bodies made of two major cell layers—these ancient creatures hail from distinct phyla: comb jellies are ctenophores, jellyfish are cnidarians. Comb jellies are propelled through the water not by propulsion, but by the action of thousands of tiny cilia that line their bodies. When light is refracted by the moving cilia it results in a beautiful rainbow of pulsating light.
This journal page is my attempt to capture the experience and also serves as field notes for learning about comb jellies. (Stillman & Birn Beta journal, 5.5×8.5, watercolor, ink, and alcohol to create the textural effect.)
It’s tough to keep up a sketchbook when traveling by bicycle! But here’s the result of my recent 400 mile, 8-day cycling trip along the Erie Canal in New York State. (You can click on the image to enlarge it a bit.) Because I needed to cover 50 to 60 miles a day, I found it impossible to sketch until the riding was done. No matter how tired, I made a point of extending the schematic map eastward each evening, filling in some of the day’s adventures in words or pictures.
Packing light was essential! I brought a black Micron 02 pen, a small watercolor kit, water brush, and 5”x8” Moleskin watercolor sketchbook packed in a ziplock bag. The birds and bicycles page (below)– a record of all the birds I’ve seen while cycling– was completed back at home.
Having creative friends is wonderful thing—especially when they invite you over for an evening of sketching! I’d been eying Camille’s garden for awhile and I was glad for the chance to look at it more closely. Unfortunately, the sun was fading fast, so I chose just a small part of the flower bed to paint. I especially liked the way the hedge bindweed threaded through the lilies and daisies. The wren is nesting in my own garden, but he fit that space quite nicely and so became the final element to the page.
What if you had to draw something every hour all day, but each drawing could take only one to five minutes? That’s the challenge I issued to participants at a recent workshop on Arts and Birding in Maine…and this page is my own result. Starting at 5:40am with the clothes hanging in my closet, I found that sometimes I knew what I wanted to draw (the osprey nest), but more often, I just stopped at some point during each hour and drew whatever was in front of me (flowers on the breakfast table at 7:40am, my half-eaten turkey wrap at 12:59pm).
My aim with the challenge was to encourage participants to work fast to get something down on the page, without worrying so much about how it turned out. I also wanted people to see that it is possible to make time for sketching, even if it’s just a few minutes each day. By getting into a habit of regularly putting pen to paper, drawing skills improve!
Since it’s impossible to convey “a day in the life” on this island in just minutes of sketching, I thought I’d also give you an expanded view. Join us in 2015!
Arts and Birding 2014, Audubon Camp on Hog Island, Maine
Don’t get me wrong: I love living birds, too. It’s just that living birds are harder to draw and paint. So when I have a chance to study and sketch specimens, I seize it! Bird “study skins”—as these un-posed, stuffed birds are called—provide a close-up view of anatomy, feather groups, and coloration that is often hard to decipher when birds are alive and moving. By sketching bird skins, I’m better prepared to capture the right placement and shape of a bird’s wings, feet, and bill when sketching birds that are alive and fleeting.
These specimens are part of the collection at the Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine, where I recently spent a week teaching “Arts and Birding”…and encouraging participants to take a closer look at both living and dead birds.
No visit to the rocky coast of Maine would be complete without exploring and sketching in the watery realm where land meets sea. Here, a fascinating world of plants and animals awaits discovery. Creatures of the Intertidal Zone are uniquely adapted to live both underwater and high and dry for hours each day as the tide rises and falls. Only the most hardy and adaptable survive – and they do it with remarkable tenacity.
Sketching conditions are a little challenging. I typically bring just sketchbook and a single pen (and, if I remember, a magnifying glass, shallow pan, and bandana to dry my hands after poking around in cold saltwater). A long scramble over slippery seaweed and barnacle laden rocks is required to reach the most diverse pools. I work fast, always mindful of the turn of the tide, and sketch species as I find them, building out the page as I go. Later, I add a wash of color. The end result not only captures species found, but records for me each moment of discovery while at the edge of the sea.
I’ve been weeding around the house and gardens this week, and discovering some unwanted beauties in the process. I pulled the shagbark hickory first – complete with half its outer shell – and started this page with that. Next came the sugar maple, which I found spouting beneath the peonies. I liked the curve of the stem reaching for light, but I liked it better in my journal than in the ground. The page seemed a little spare, so I went looking for something small and discovered the silver maple, just getting started among the peas. There’s more weeding to be done, so perhaps I’ll find more to add in the future—but for now, my work and my page is done.
How do you draw something when it is in constant motion? How do you get the shapes and colors and patterns right when you only get a fleeting look at your subject? That’s the challenge of sketching birds—which requires good field identification skills, some study of bird anatomy, and solid drawing and painting skills.
I like to study and sketch specimens and use photographs for reference materials before going into the field. By working out shapes, identifying details, and making notes about a bird’s habits, I’m more prepared to sketch quickly when in the field.
That’s what I’ve done here, in preparation for a weeklong program on Arts and Birding at the Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine at the end of June. I’m on the teaching team, which also includes experts in field ornithology, photography, videography, and writing.
During the week, we’ll explore coastal islands and habitats, and we’ll have a chance to see Atlantic Puffins, Black Guillemots, and other seabirds. I’ll be leading a journal making workshop on the first day, helping people make a simple accordion fold journal that they can use during the week. This is my mock up, which I’ll continue to work in before heading to Maine, but hope to finish when I’m there.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one drawn in by the burst of blossoms in a nearby locust grove. Once I got up close to sketch, I could hear the drone of hundreds of bees buzzing in the profusion of flowers draping the trees.
These were especially large bumble bees—and I’ll have to go back to make a more accurate identification. Though they were flying about as I sketched, they were too focused on the task at hand to bother with me. Bees are an important pollinator of locusts and beekeepers often plant them to boost honey production.