The glory days of springtime come fast and fleeting. Miss the trillium, and you have to wait a whole year to see it again. Migrating birds come, feed, and leave again while we sleep or work or are otherwise distracted. There never seems to be enough time in my spring; no way to capture it all before the symphony of greens gives way to summer. Still, I’ve managed some quick sketches in the woods and I was fortunate to be home when a pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks showed up at the feeder.
Sometimes it’s February, sometimes March when the red-winged blackbirds return. Regardless, it’s a welcome and exuberant racket of wingbeats and squawking from the marshes and treetops. It doesn’t necessarily mean that spring is here; indeed, today, a flock swarmed over our yard and flew off just as it began to snow. But it means we’ve turned the corner: more light, more days above freezing than below, and more good things to come.
Tips and Techniques– I wanted to zoom in on the shapes of the birds in flight, rather than the details, and let some of the birds merge, the way they do in a flock. To do this, I used a loose wash of ultramarine and burnt sienna to create the black, and tried to drop in a bit of yellow and red before the birds got too dry. I like the way the red merged into the dark mix, creating a dusky purple on some of the wings. I suspect this would work better at a larger size, where you could really get some nice color variation and more mixing right on the paper.
My previous post on tulips left me eager for more reds, though this week, I’m back to birds and words. What better choice for reds than the Northern Cardinal, the most colorful bird at my feeder in winter? But isn’t red just red, you ask? Well, absolutely not. You can see that I’ve experimented with different reds (and yellow) here— mixing combinations of transparent reds in a range of warm and cool tones. Other than alizarin crimson, these aren’t colors I use frequently, so this was a worthwhile experiment.
Tips and Techniques– Here’s the line up of colors at the top: Nickel Azo Yellow, Quin Magenta mixed with Transparent Pyrrole Orange, Vermillion, and Alizarin Crimson. The Vermillion looks heavy because it’s Dr. Ph. Martin’s Synchromatic Transparent Water Color, an intense liquid watercolor that I’ve had in my desk for years, but rarely use. The point here isn’t to go out and buy any of these colors, but to experiment with your own. Try mixing the ones on your palette (or in your drawer) to see how much they will do for you.
Warblers: those ever elusive, but much beloved sprites of the tree tops; flitting about, dashing out and then back again, catching insects on the fly or just daring you to find them amidst the greenery. Capturing the yellow warbler on paper proved challenging, too. Perhaps it is because these perky little birds rarely sit still, so making them pose on paper seemed unnatural. Or maybe it’s that paint pales in comparison with the stunningly bright yellow of this warbler in sunshine. Nonetheless, #4 in my perching bird series is complete and, after several weeks of painting birds, I’m planning to turn my attention to other subjects for a while. (Click image to view larger.)
Tips and Techniques– Yellow can be a devilish color! It seems so light, yet, like other colors, there is a whole range of values from light to dark. Shadows on yellow are also tricky. They sometimes appear greenish or purple or gray. It’s easy to get murky laying shadows on yellow in watercolor. My advice when painting yellow (think daffodils, or lemons, or warblers), is to start lighter than you think. Leave the white of the paper for the brightest areas. Do a few washes to deepen values as needed. Experiment with different shadow tones on a separate test sheet– again, you may not need to go too dark to achieve variety and form.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Registration for Arts and Birding 2019 opens in October; the session often fills quickly. Stay tuned here.