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.
“To me there are no rules…except those which your own feelings suggest and he who renders nature to make one feel sentiment of such, to me is the greatest man.”
— J. Alden Weir, 1876
As a pioneer of American Impressionism, J. Alden Weir set aside the artistic conventions of his day to explore new ways of painting. His words are a good reminder to me to take risks, connect with a subject, and express what I see and feel. While visiting Weir’s former home, now the Weir Farm National Historic Site in Connecticut, I had just a short time to sketch, so I don’t think I was altogether successful in illustrating his words. They really should be paired with the spreading oaks and maples, stone walls, red barns, and scenic landscapes of his farm. But who knows– maybe Weir would be forgiving, telling me to forget what “should be” and keep putting brush to paper.
Indian Ladder Farms is a much beloved place in our community. Few people I know haven’t picked the farm’s apples in fall, brought their kids to pet baby animals as a rite of spring, or eaten their share of cider donuts over the years. We’ve watched outdoor community theatre under the backdrop of orchard and escarpment, picked out our Christmas trees in winter, and frequented the farm’s gift shop for birthdays and special occasions. Indian Ladder Farms has been in operation since 1915 and it is treasured by generations.
Why I’ve never thought to sketch there escapes me. Maybe it’s that I’m always there for some other purpose, or maybe it’s that I like going when it’s raining and quiet. That changed this week, when I went to Indian Ladder twice—and solely for artistic purposes.
Here are the results of what I hope are many more sketching excursions at the farm. More barns, apples, vistas, and maybe a donut or two are in store.
I wanted practice with perspective and Indian Ladder’s main barns proved a worthy challenge. On my second trip, I focused on the farm’s Flemish giant rabbit. The Flemish giant is a massive breed by any measure, standing about 2 1/2 feet tall, which it does, on occasion, when not bounding around its cage, grooming itself or nibbling at children’s handouts. This was my first time drawing a rabbit and you can see some improvement from left side to right.
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”)