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.
“The Centerpiece,” graphite on Strathmore 400 series drawing paper, 18”x24” (actual nest size 20”x10”). Click to view larger.
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?
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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.
Watercolor, Strathmore- 400 series sketchbook; click to view larger
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
Today, I don’t know how to assuage grief; stem loss; draw hope. What color do you use when a new day dawns gray and stark and you no longer know your country?
So I walk streets littered with leaves, and wander through the graveyard looking for answers among stones. Here– a veteran, there– a mother, a child. Lives engraved in names and dates. On one of my favorites, these words: Change upon change, the sun is rising yet.
And then I come home to begin again, and start with the simple act of filling the bird feeders.
The last garden vegetables left to harvest include a few scarlet runner beans that I’ve had my eye on since their red flowers bloomed in August. I didn’t make time to paint them then, but didn’t want to miss them altogether.
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I sketched directly in ink and then added watercolor to the foreground layer. I went back in and painted an additional layer of light watercolor vines and beans to add more depth. The shadows are really important to making this work because they create the illusion of light and depth. Done in Stillman and Birn Zeta journal, 8.5 x 11.
I went on a “sketch crawl” at the Connecticut College Arboretum last weekend expecting to draw trees. Instead, the “crawl” felt more like a race, as we were given 15 minutes to draw in a particular location before moving to the next site. Between hiking, settling in and packing up, there was precious little time for more than a very loose sketch and a hasty wash of color at each location. It was a good exercise, but I quickly abandoned the idea of doing a detailed tree study in favor of focusing on simpler plants.
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Back at home,the warm-toned fall fruits and foliage just seemed too stark on white paper. I finished the page by adding the background wash of yellow ochre, which set off the baneberry’s white fruit nicely and helped to pull together the separate elements.
In autumn, I like to watch for birds that are migrating south, but I also enjoy the rear-round regulars that visit our yard. With mating out of the way and young fledged, songbirds focus on the singular task of eating to prepare for the long, lean winter. A harvest of flowers gone to seed and fruit on wild vines, supplemented by bird feeders set a welcome table.
Drawing birds takes some practice and a bit of study to familiarize yourself with anatomy, feather groups, and the correct placement of legs and eyes. I spend time drawing birds from mounted museum specimens, study skins, and photographs, as well as from life. For a piece like this, all of those things combine to inform the finished artwork.
I typically start with a light pencil sketch so that I can refine the lines, and then add ink. I like a Micron 005 so that the lines are very fine and I can suggest feathers here and there. Then I paint a loose wash to map out major areas, followed by increasingly detailed layers of color and value. I go from a size 5 or 6 brush at the start and finish with a size 1.
Like many artists, I want my paintings to turn out well. But that typically means that I sacrifice experimentation for tried and true techniques. Risk vs. Return. At some point, though, I start to feel stale and uninspired, and then I know that it’s time to change the line up and go for risk. Such was the case with painting these birches.
Here, I cast off my usual careful drawing and painting style and tested a variety of watercolor techniques. To achieve background depth, I built up layers of color behind the birches and used plastic wrap and masking fluid to add texture and variety. Here’s what I learned:
- It’s time to buy new masking fluid when there’s a glob of congealed goop in the bottle.
- Good paper makes a big difference! This is Fabriano soft press 140lb watercolor paper. The layers of paint went on beautifully.
- I like precise drawing – and it would have made for better results here. But a less careful drawing freed me to experiment more with painting techniques.
- Once is not enough…but it’s a start.
I met Connecticut artist Jan Blencowe last week and we headed to Hammonassett Beach State Park to sketch together. The Connecticut coast is on the Long Island Sound, rather than directly on the Atlantic, so there is no surf. Instead, stretches of quiet beach and boulders dropped by glaciers some 17,000 years ago line the coast. Hammonassett also preserves 460 acres of salt marsh and that’s where we headed to try to capture the color and mood of Autumn.
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The day was bright, but windy and cool. After sketching the salt marsh for awhile, I retreated from the wind into an upland area of oaks and, sheltered behind a boulder, I did some quick and admittedly sloppy sketches of leaves directly in ink. Back at home, I added color, keeping the washes loose to mirror the quality of the sketches. At that point, the page looked rough and unfocused and, disappointed, I set it aside. Several days later, in a fit of frustration over something I couldn’t find, I decided to use the page to record things I had discarded in my recent move to Connecticut that I wish I’d kept. That gave the page the focus it needed. It also helped me see how small and insignificant those things really were. And like so many leaves in the wind, I let them go.
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