Untapped Potential

Bird eggs are full of potential. In the most elegant and simple form, they remind us of new beginnings, of possibilities. Surrounding them, of course, is the tangled mess. Sometimes, great things hatch, sometimes not. In this case, the adult robins disappeared, leaving these three eggs behind. In discovering them, I suppose, the untapped potential passed to me. If not in life, then in art, the birds’ legacy lives on.

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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.

Nest Map

Finding bird nests is something typically reserved for late autumn, when fallen leaves reveal summer’s hidden treasures. But I’ve been lucky this spring. Bluebirds and trees swallows took up residence in nest boxes we put up in April; a robin returned to a nest used last year on an upstairs window ledge; I spied a pair of cardinals making their nest in a hemlock bough; and, just last week, I caught sight of an American redstart as it landed and disappeared into a tangle of shrubbery at the edge of the woods– a tell that led me to discover its well concealed nest. I know there is a lot more nesting going on in the surrounding woods and field, but it may be autumn before I am able to add more to the map.

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Tips and Techniques– I love making maps and find that it is an excellent way to learn and record information. I made this one so I would have a reference for future years’ nesting activity on our property. I used Google Maps to sketch the aerial view– it’s a great tool for getting the basics of the landscape geography you want to record. Once I had the map laid out, I added the nest, using a photo of the actual nest so as not to disturb the birds. I had been hoping an egg or two would have already been laid, but because I was a bit too early, I decided to add the eggs for each bird as a separate element. I used the Princeton Field Guide Nest, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds by Paul Baicich and Colin Harrison as a reference, as well as an atypically oblong robin’s egg found abandoned near our driveway.

Nest Trio

I get up early to make the 1.5 hour drive to the small town of Granville, New York, not far from Vermont’s Green Mountains. Arriving just before 10am gives me just enough time to buy a coffee before the doors open at one of my favorite places to sketch: the Pember Museum of Natural History. I make this pilgrimage once a year and I’ve already decided where I’ll spend the next four hours: hovering over the glass and cherry cases of Victorian-era bird nests and eggs. The selection is fantastic: eggs of every size and pattern, from tiny cream-colored hummingbird eggs to the huge streaked egg of the extinct great auk, and rows of woven nests decorated with leaves, lichen, and moss. I’ve drawn a good number of them over the years, so I choose ones I’ve passed over previously, put pen to paper, and begin. Hours later at closing time, it’s just me and the lone curator left in the museum and I’m satisfied…though I already look forward to my return next year.

I sketched this trio of nests in detail using a Micron pen on Fabriano hot press watercolor paper and painted them later at home. I did a fourth in my journal— the nest of the sedge wren, posted last week.

Tips and Techniques: When drawing a nest, spend a few minutes really looking at how it’s made before beginning. There are often interesting bits of materials that you’ll want to highlight. Usually the weave gets tighter in the inner cup, which may also be lined with downy material or feathers. Consider that the bird has already created the masterpiece. Your job is to translate it onto paper. Keep your lines very loose as you start, following the weave of twigs, grasses, or pine needles around the cup-like shape. Once the basic structure and strands of material are roughed in, I typically use negative painting (or drawing) techniques to weave darker shapes and strands underneath lighter ones to develop the complex weave. Pay attention to values! Getting darks and shadows in place will really make your nest take shape.

I will be ordering prints of this painting for sale for $30 (includes mailing). If you would like to order a copy, please e-mail me at jeanmackay.art@gmail.com. Prints are made on archival quality Hahnemuhle Museum Etching paper, 8”x10” and suitable for easy matting and framing.

The Faint Echo of Spring

I found this nest in the collection of the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY, where I spent the better part of a day sketching nests that have outlived their builders by more than a century. Somewhere in the weave of stems lies the faint echoes of a grassy wetland, the calls of birds and frogs, the mix of cool air and warm sunshine, of another springtime. I’ve never seen a sedge wren (also called the short-billed marsh wren), and this is as close as I may come. Can you imagine how such a small bird weaves a ball of a nest with nothing more than a beak?

Tips & Techniques– Include field notes in your journal to make it a good reference for what you discover and learn. When I first saw the label on this nest I didn’t know that there were two distinct marsh wren species: a short-billed and a long-billed. I had seen marsh wren nests that didn’t look quite like this, and a quick Google search explained why—the ones I’d seen were made by the long-billed marsh wren. These two species have different colored eggs, too: white versus mottled purplish brown. Art, discovery, and learning fit together beautifully for me in the pages of my journal. I hope you have opportunities to do the same!

New Beginnings

This is one of those journal pages that pretty much tells the whole story. I’ve been on a crazy ride in the last few weeks with lots of travels, selling a house, buying a house, and tons of work. But as these pages convey, I’m thrilled to have this new beginning and to be landing closer to family, friends, and work when the transition is complete. I’m also grateful to be moving to a restored historic house with a great basement, new roof, and nesting phoebes and robins. Pages of chaos expected in the weeks ahead!

Tips & Techniques– Try using your basic sketching pens for hand layering. I use a Micron 02 or 005 black pen with archival ink for both sketching and lettering, which saves me carrying around a variety of calligraphy pens and inks. Write your text and then and build up the thickness of the letters to add interest.

Marvelously Elusive

The marvel of bird eggs never escapes me. But painting them to perfection almost always proves elusive. I’ve been at it for years. I found these paintings done over the last 10 years in the back of my art file drawer this week and was reminded of the value of practice. Over and over, year after year, I learn, make mistakes, improve, try again. The trick with eggs is getting the edges clean and precise, while adding multiple layers of paint so that the egg takes shape. You can see that some of these made it and others didn’t. And the challenge of doing many eggs on a single page is that they all have to be right for the piece to work. So, I am curious– what’s your “egg?” What marvelous subject do you return to again and again in spite of difficulties and disappointments?

Eggs- variety

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Hummingbird and Murre Eggs. watercolor. 8x10