American Robin

Sketchers place a lot of emphasis on being about to work fast to quickly capture what they are seeing. I work with the same time pressures when working outside or when sketching on the go. However, I find the exact opposite is needed when I sit down to do a detailed painting. Then, there is no substitute for taking my time and working slowly and carefully. Here’s the third painting in my perching bird series. It took me several days of drawing in fits and starts to get the bird’s position the way I wanted it, and then I painted it over the course of a week, stopping to breath, observe, think through color choices, and take things one step at a time.

Tips and Techniques–  Here are two images of the American robin in progress. You can see the underlying loose wash on the robin that helps make the colors interesting and lively. The initial wash on the gray back and head is a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. Second washes included more of the same mix, as well as washes of ultramarine with alizarin crimson to create purple tones. The breast began with burnt sienna, but later washes included a mix of aureolin yellow and pyrol scarlet, which gave it a warmer orange color. My choice to paint the word Robin in yellow ochre came after taking a hiatus in order to think through possibilities. I made some color swatches of other contenders before settling on ochre, but I think it makes a perfect complement to the eggs and the bird. (Click to view larger; sorry the image quality isn’t better)

Perching Birds

After a successful experiment with perching birds on words, I decided to develop a series of paintings pairing birds with their names. These may make good prints or cards, which I will pursue once I’ve done four to six pieces. Here’s the first two.


Tips and Techniques– If you are going to spend a lot of time creating a finished piece of art, spend time upfront on thumbnail sketches and color choices to work out potential issues before you begin. I mocked up different bird poses and lettering styles before starting these and it was well worth it. Though I had already painted a wren piece in my journal, I switched the posture of the bird on the E several times before settling on the down-facing pose. My first mockup of the swallow with capital letters proved that the word itself was too long. Switching to cursive, tightened the space. I also tinkered with the variations on the letter S and where the bird should perch before figuring out a placement that seemed balanced.

Bird Words

Letterforms and birds are subjects that frequently turn up in my journals. At first, I simply matched bold words with their subjects, but more recently, I’ve tried to get birds to perch on letters. It’s not always easy to do. You’ve got to know a bit about the anatomy of bird feet, and find the right placement to support the bird and balance the page. Here’s a fun one that I did today— the lovely winter wren.

 

Here are a few sketches and paintings that give a sense of my progression with this over the years.

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Tips and Techniques– Don’t shy away from learning to draw birds’ feet. You know you’re guilty if you are prone to hide this part of a bird’s anatomy behind leaves and branches. A simple Google search for “bird feet anatomy” will turn up lots of good diagrams and drawings for you to study and practice. If you have an opportunity to look at bird skins or mounted birds at a nature center or museum, take the time to sketch  feet. It’s a sure way to improve your bird art.

In the Brambles

I discovered this American redstart nest back in May. The birds laid four chestnut speckled eggs and by July they were gone. Now, with leaves falling and foliage dying back, I returned to the nest for another view. Still protected by thorns and a tangle of leaves, and a bit weather worn, the nest remains a thing of beauty: perfectly woven with bark and pine needles and threaded with strips of birch and spider webs. What better treasure could there be in the brambles?

 

Tips and Techniques: In the spirit of Inktober, I sketched this nest directly in ink using a dip pen and Calli jet black India waterproof ink. I added a lot of detail to the drawing before adding watercolor. To create a fully saturated variety of gold, green, and russet leaves, I painted four or five (or more) transparent layers of color, going from light to dark and finally to shadow tones. The moral of the story is not to stop too soon. You don’t want to overwork it, but if your layers are transparent, you can really build up rich and subtle color.

Essentials

Imagine a week on an island off the coast of Maine. No cars, no stores, no streetlights…just good company, good food, starry skies, blue horizons, and long days spent almost entirely outside. These are the essentials for Arts and Birding, a week-long program I facilitate each year at the Hog Island Audubon Camp. Because I’m teaching, I don’t have time to complete much artwork of my own, but I did manage a few pages. And as always, I came away inspired to keep observing, sketching, and sharing my work with the wider world.

Notes: (Clockwise from top) It’s not all birds! We also explore and sketch coastal scenes, plants, and life in the watery realm between high and low tide; Hog Island has a great collection of bird specimens, including a drawer of bird eggs; Young osprey nesting on the island are banded by wildlife biologists each year. It makes for fast sketching, but it’s a thrill to see these birds up close; Just the essentials for a week of Arts and Birding.

Arts and Birding is open for both sketchers/painters and photographers. Here’s a few photos from the week taken by photography staff and participants.

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Registration for Arts and Birding 2019 opens in October; the session often fills quickly. Stay tuned here.

Arts & Birding 2017

If you love sketching or photographing birds and nature, want to improve your skills, and have a fun week exploring the beautiful rocky coast of Maine, join me for Arts and Birding at the Hog Island Audubon Camp, June 11-16, 2017. Being in on the island as program director for this session is one of the highlights of my year! We still have a few spaces in both the sketching/painting track and the photography track— so please read on and consider being part of this incredible experience. Beginners to advanced participants are welcome!

Photography Track This session is scheduled at the height of bird nesting season, so you’ll have opportunities to photograph birds and chicks–including osprey, eagles, puffins, terns, and songbirds–at their most active and colorful time of year. In addition to birds on Hog Island, you’ll visit several mainland hot spots and photograph puffins and terns on Eastern Egg Rock while aboard the Snowgoose III. You’ll also be able to take advantage of magical dawn light and evening sunsets to photograph island landscapes. National Geographic Photographer Drew Fulton and former Boston Globe columnist and photographer Derrick Jackson will offer daily skill sessions and share their expertise in the field.

Arts Track– Come prepared to expand your skills in the supportive atmosphere of fellow artists and expert instructors—yours truly and fine artist and print maker Sherrie York. Hog Island’s quiet coves, rocky inlets, and old growth spruce forest provide opportunities for both exploration and art. Daily skill building sessions will cover techniques for drawing and painting, with a focus on nature journaling, birds, and landscapes.

About Hog Island– The island is just a short boat ride from the mainland, but it’s a world apart altogether—no cars, no shopping plazas, no houses, just 300 acres of Maine coastal spruce forest, rocky coves, and fantastic views in all directions. Handsome camp buildings that date to the 1890s, but updated with modern amenities, are concentrated at the tip of the island. This unique sanctuary has been offering education programs to adults and youth under the auspices of the National Audubon Society since 1936.

Visit the Hog Island website for additional details and registration, and don’t hesitate to ask a question in the comments or via email: jeanmackay(dot)art(at)gmail(dot)com.