The November garden is as stark as the rest of the world. The vibrancy of the August palette has given way to browns and grays. A touch of green and ocher and russet remain. It isn’t much, but I’ll take it. A tangle of once-scarlet runner beans is all there is for a final garden painting.
Last weekend, I cut the last of the frost-wilted flowers, fed the compost pile, and left a few flower heads for the birds. I thought the garden was finished for the season, until I took a second look at the blackened seed heads. They became the perfect subject for testing my new Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen. I love the way the pen glides over the paper—smooth and fine, not scratchy, just a pleasure to use. The ink is not permanent, so I can’t add watercolor to it, but the line quality is lovely. I’m almost looking forward to sketching what’s left of the dried tangle of runner beans.
The treachery, at last, too late, is plain;
Bare are the places where the sweet flowers dwelt.
From November, by Helen Hunt Jackson
An early snow took me by surprise. Not that I hadn’t heard the forecast, just that I wasn’t ready to give up fall. The fields still held a bit of green, there were leaves yet to rake, and 20 daffodils to go in the ground. Alas, that was before. Now, the ground is white but for a scattering of russet oak leaves, and the season of browns and blues has begun.
Tips and Techniques: I have been doing a lot of illustration work lately, and although I could have done a detailed drawing of grasses and seed heads, I wanted to change gears and get at the patterns and layers of the field. I started by taping the edges with low tack artist tape, then drew the outlines of several seed pods and goldenrod galls I collected. I painted the entire page with a loose wash of burnt umber and ultramarine blue and let it dry. Then I painted successive layers of blue and brown, darkening the space between the shapes and adding new plant stalks to add depth.
Initially, I painted around the shapes, but later I used liquid masking fluid to reserve the lighter layers. Along the way, I added burnt sienna and quin gold to warm up the page. Once I was satisfied with the depth of color, I removed all the mask and added just a few details on some of the lightest seed heads. This technique requires patience as you wait for the washes to dry completely between layers; it helps to have a second project going at the same time!
Green Mountains, red barns, bucolic fields, covered bridges. Local crafts, craft beverages, specialty cheeses, abundant orchards. Vermont is close to perfect for artists. In addition to painting, my friends and I did a lot of eating during a recent “art weekend,” and so that is what you see here.
(Click to view larger)
It’s the perfect time of year for painting trees. Bare bones and branches, I like the unobstructed view, when limbs, bark, and shapes are revealed. This old maple in my front yard is interesting from almost any angle. I started mid-afternoon in glowing light but, because the sun faded quickly, it took me several days—and patience waiting for the right light again– to finish.
November Maple, 10″x14”, Watercolor on 140lb Arches cold press paper
Seasons unfold, pages evolve. That’s what happened here as I sketched a variety of fall fruits and seeds from the trees in our yard over the last few weeks. It’s all part of learning what’s here on the rural property we moved to in July. There are nice old sugar maples, red and white oaks, black walnuts, cottonwoods, birches, and white pines, with well-placed dogwood, pin cherry, and apple trees. There are many year’s worth of sketches in the trees alone…and you’ll see more in the future, I’m sure.
Tips & Techniques– Just as seasons evolve, your pages can too. While it can be nice to finish a page all at once, sometimes that just doesn’t work. Be patient. Do a little at a time, leave it, come back, and do more. Your most important decision is probably where to place the first object. Avoid the middle of the page, which tends to lead to a dull design and leaves only tight spaces around the center to fill. If you know you have a larger item (e.g., black walnuts vs. acorns), place it sooner than later. You can always find room for small things after the big ones are in place.
A small but vocal flock of Canada geese flies over our house every day now. They emerge from the tree line, calling to one another and, it seems, to anyone who will listen. I know better, but still, I hear them implore: look up! The maples will not be golden for long.
Tips & Techniques– Painting birds in flight is challenging—and it takes practice. It helps to study the anatomy of the wing so that you understand its major feather groups. It’s also important to have a general sense of perspective so that you can begin to see how the plane of each wing moves and how they align together. Even then, it’s not easy. In addition to time in the field, watch videos to study flight in slow motion. I made several pencil sketches and marked the angles between wings, head, and tail to try to get the proportion and position right before starting this page.
For the past two weeks I have been sharing my kitchen table with an enormous baldfaced hornet’s nest (a gift). I realize that this is a highly peculiar and unappetizing centerpiece, but there is simply no other place in my house that can accommodate it and a similarly oversized sketch pad. To be honest, I didn’t think we would be dining with it for more than a few days. The night I brought it in, I made two large, quick sketches and started a painting. But I wasn’t satisfied— the nest was more subtle, detailed and complex than I expected. Then one morning at breakfast, I saw more clearly how the nest was constructed, the patterns of the waved paper, how the lilac leaves where cemented in, how subtle shadows helped define each section. I decided to start again. Here’s the finished drawing. My table is now decorated for the holidays and the nest has been relegated to the garage— for later dissection and more art.
Though silent when I brought the nest in, I was still quite relieved to learn that baldfaced hornets live only one season and do not reuse their nests from year to year. Only fertilized queens overwinter (but not in the old nest) and emerge in spring to build a new nest and start a new colony. Baldfaced hornets build their nest by chewing old wood and mixing it with saliva to form a papery substance — which is rather astonishing when you think about such small creatures creating something of this size and complexity.
I appreciate the last vestiges of autumn: curled beech leaves in barren woods; uneaten grapes still hanging from tangled vines; oak leaves that refuse to fall. They hold on until the bitter end. And why not? Why not go for one last day of warm sunshine; one final chance at glorious existence before letting go. Wouldn’t you?
I take the beauty of fall for granted. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate it or that I am not awed by its glory. Only that I take for granted that it will be so, year after year. For those of us who live in the Northeast, it is a given that winters will be cold and long, that spring will burst forth in birdsong and flowers, that summer will be prized for its heat and fullness, and that autumn will complete the year with a cloak of gold.
I painted this page on location with a fellow sketcher who grew up in the Middle East. She marveled at leaves the way people who live in warm places marvel at snow when they see it for the first time. It surprised me; I had never given it thought. So here’s to a fine afternoon sketching and a valuable reminder to be grateful for things I take for granted.
About the technique– This sketchbook page was done with a watercolor technique known as “negative painting.”
- I first painted a wet-in-wet wash of primary colors (ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, and Hansa yellow medium).
- When dry, I sketched an outline of the main leaves and began to paint around them with graded washes using combinations of the same three colors to create additional leaf shapes and patterns. Using a simple palette helps to ensure that the layers don’t get muddy.
- I continued to add more layers of paint, creating additional detail and a greater sense of depth. It’s kind of a dizzying process and you can easily get lost in it. The trick is stopping before tinkering too much and losing the spontaneous effects of the wet washes.
Watercolor, Strathmore- 400 series sketchbook