You know the drill. The days blur into weeks and suddenly it’s late February. We’re nearly a year into the pandemic and, although I’m grateful for how fortunate I have been, I’m tired too. My sketchbook typically reflects moments of beauty and discovery, but I thought I should also record the sameness and sentiment of “Just another Covid day.” I was glad for the geese…and the coffee.
What a simple, extraordinary drawing tool a pencil is. Unpretentious. Inexpensive. Humble. Yet, the pencil still manages to be demanding. With no color to hide behind and no tricks up it’s sleeve, the pencil requires focus on line and value to bring subjects to life. Artists refer to “pencil miles” or “the thousand-hour pencil” for good reason. There’s no substitute for drawing practice. The pencil demands that you to put in your time.
Tips and Techniques– I went back to drawing this week because I was trying to gain efficiency in my lines when drawing birds. I wanted to try committing to memory bird shapes, features, and feather groups to make me more adept at sketching when in the field. I found working on blue jays particularly challenging because of the head crest, patterning, and shape of the beak. The most fun part of this page was painting the pencil itself, which seemed especially fitting given the jay-colored Staedtler pencils used (F and 2B).
Cool Beans! I’m thrilled to share the news that The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook has won a 2020 American Graphic Design Award from Graphic Design USA. From more than 10,000 entries, only a small handful of projects were selected as winners. Congratulations and many thanks to Kris Fitzgerald at 2K Design for her award-winning performance and creative excellence in helping bring the book to life!
Let’s face it: it’s going to be a long winter. Between the darkness, cold and Covid-19, I figure we’re all going to need a few good books and an extra helping of cake to make it through. So here are my top five book picks for artists, plus a delicious apple-cranberry torte.
My choices include a mix of artistic styles, from the highly precise to the wildly loose, from urban sketchers to nature journalers, each with a distinct approach that has expanded my skills and pushed me in new directions. If you’re looking for holiday gifts or winter reading, consider these with my highest recommendation:
Artist’s Journal Workshop, Cathy Johnson (2011)
This thoughtful and comprehensive book unlocked the idea of keeping a journal to record my personal journey as an artist. It expanded my subject matter and approach, and ultimately led me to connect with other sketchbook artists and begin this blog. This book is one of Cathy Johnson’s finest—which is saying a lot, since all of her books are terrific. I love that it includes insights and artwork not only from Johnson, but from other artists as well, which provides excellent variety, inspiration, and examples.
Working With Color, Shari Blaukopf (2019)
I’ve been following Shari Blaukopf’s blog for years and this book puts her expertise and artwork close at hand. If you’re not familiar with the Urban Sketching Handbook series, I recommend you seek it out. The series provides practical techniques and lots of examples in a small, handy format. In Working With Color, Blaukopf shares techniques for using watercolor on the go, with special emphasis on color choices and limited palettes. This book is suitable for beginners as well as more advanced watercolor artists. I’m also eager to get a copy of Suhita Shirodkar’s Techniques for Beginners, a new release from the same series.
The Joy of Botanical Drawing, Wendy Hollender (2020)
Precision and beauty are key in botanical illustration and Wendy Hollender’s comprehensive book shows you how it’s done. She primarily uses colored pencils and watercolor pencils to create her masterpieces, but I find all of the underlying techniques she uses to be applicable to working in watercolor. This step-by-step guide to drawing and painting flowers, leaves, fruit, and more spells out how to work with basic shapes, develop values, and build up forms. Rather than leaving you overwhelmed, you’ll feel as though you finally understand the techniques and materials needed for botanical illustration. It takes patience and practice to work this way, but the investment will make you a better artist.
Urban Watercolor Sketching, Felix Scheinberger (2014)
On the other end of the spectrum from Wendy Hollender, Felix Scheinberger’s style is super loose, his color choices bold, his lines wonky and fun. But don’t let that fool you. This guy is also a master of his medium. He provides a concise history of how watercolors are made, explores glazing and wet-in-wet techniques, explains color theory, and encourages you to develop your own style. The book is fun and engaging; I love coming back to it again and again for inspiration.
Explorers’ Sketchbooks, Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert (2016)
I am fascinated by men and women throughout history who journeyed far and wide in search of new places and species and recorded their discoveries in sketchbooks. This book is a collection of excerpts from 70 artist-explorers and includes exquisite sketches and paintings they made in jungles, deserts, forests, and mountaintops. The explorer’s theme of my own book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, is inspired by them. If these men and women could work in the most challenging of conditions, we can certainly step outside, put pencil to paper, and begin a lifetime of discovery.
And a few brief mentions…
If you are looking for books specifically focused on keeping a traditional nature journal, try Roseann Hanson’s Nature Journaling for a Wild Life, Hannah Hinchman’s Little Things in a Big Country, John Muir Laws’ Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, or books by Claire Walker Leslie. All share techniques and tools to get you started and plenty of ideas and artwork to keep you going.
And finally…Cake, Maira Kalman
New York City based artist and author Maira Kalman’s books are quirky and fun and Cake is no exception. She’s teamed up with food writer Barbara Scott-Goodman for a delicious book with seventeen illustrated recipes. May I recommend the Flourless Chocolate Torte?
Your turn: What are your must-haves, game changers, or bed rock books?
It’s hard to believe that after six months of staying close to home a planned vacation to Maine is actually going to happen later this month. Yahoo! I’ll be stepping into the world of granite boulders and tide pools before you know it. In preparation for our trip, I did what I often do before leaving home and made a map to set the stage for the sketchbook pages to come. The island of Vinalhaven has a rich history of quarrying and lobster fishing, so I used a monochromatic map from 1859 as my inspiration. I look forward to filling in more of it and turning the page to record new adventures ahead.
Tips and Techniques– I love looking at old maps and thinking about how to use various elements, but I have never made one like this. If it appeals to you, I recommend trying it—it was surprisingly easy and fun. After making an outline of the coast in ink, I gave the entire page (except the buoy) a graded wash of raw umber and burnt umber. With the paint still wet, I placed plastic wrap onto the paper, which created subtle texture. Once the page was dry, I added another graded wash, this time yellow ochre, and again added the plastic wrap. Next, I painted the thick shadow along the coastline with a size 6 brush and then the thin contour lines using a size 2 brush. The text style is drawn from the historic map. After printing the letters with a Micron pen, I added a bit of white gouache to mimic the look of letterpress printing. The lower left is intentionally light so that I can write in it as the trip progresses.
If you were to draw a Venn diagram of Art, nature, and exploration, the intersection of the three is exactly where I like to be. The exploration doesn’t have to be dramatic—and in my case it rarely is—but I love going out and seeing what’s happening outside and trying to capture it in my sketchbook with watercolor and a few words. I’m not looking for grand vistas as much as simple, everyday subjects that mark the changing seasons and comings and goings of creatures that exist in a world of their own. These small things not only ground me, but also make the world larger and more grand. This page illustrates some of my favorite tools of the trade at the intersection of Art and nature.
Tips and Techniques– Painting art supplies or common household objects is valuable practice for capturing different types of textures. This painting presented the challenge of painting plastic, metal, and wood, as well as the texture of the nest and markings on the eggs. In this case, I found that a few simple strokes worked better than lot of fussing. Paying attention to the edges of your subjects is also important. A clean edge is key to the object taking shape.
Oh give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the spring of the year.
— Robert Frost
Under massive oaks and maples: dappled sunlight and hundreds of Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Oh give us pleasure in the flowers today. I had come to the woods feeling heavy-hearted, weary, needing spring. And give us not to think so far away as the uncertain harvest. How well Frost understood his time and ours. Drawing kept me in the moment; later it brought me pleasure again when finishing this page at home. Keep us here—all simply in the spring of the year.
Wishing you the pleasure of flowers.
I headed into the woods last weekend to find mayapples in bloom. The flowers are hidden underneath large leaves, so sketching them required squatting at ground level. Within a few minutes, my knees sent me packing, which is, in part, why I only filled half the page with mayapples. I also wanted the white space as a place to rest the eyes and contemplate this thought on painting:
In painting, as in any art, persistent practice is not working on the object or the image or the performance alone, but rather, working on yourself, which is the constant behind all the “product” of your art. (From Learning to Look Carefully; the Art of John Morra by Ned Depew.)
Tips and Techniques– I painted this using negative painting techniques, and in trying to get deep darks to bring out the white flowers, I lost much of the light and transparency that I like to have in a painting. I would have preferred to convey a more dappled light, like that in the woods where mayapples grow. One way to avoid this is to select just a few colors — 3 or 4 — to work with for the entire painting. I started with just three, but they were too light to give me deep darks when mixed at full strength. So, I experimented with adding some dark staining colors, which gave me good darks, but began to muddy the page when added on top of the previous washes. In the process, however, I discovered why many artists have Phthalo Green (PG7) on their palette. It’s garish on its own, but when mixed with Transparent Pyrrole Orange (PO71) (and other reds) it produces a range of very nice dark greens. I plan to add these to my palette and continue seeing how they perform.
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!