In springtime, birds tuck their nests into dense foliage and tangled vines. In fall, I try to find as many nests as I can. It is a game of hide and seek in which the birds always win. Still, I walk in woods and fields and along the roadside, taking new paths, looking from new angles, scanning the trees. I count every nest as a victory; a way to understand the place where I live and the creatures that inhabit it. Alas, it is no easy task. Though I think I am paying attention, here are two recent finds that prove otherwise. I walked past these two nests several times a week all summer and fall without seeing a thing.
Tips and Techniques– Most birds—and their eggs, feathers, and nests—are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The law ensures the sustainability of populations of all protected migratory bird species. Unless you have a permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, you should not collect these things. Instead, sketch them where you find them, take a photo, and leave them in place. In addition, seek out nature centers and natural history museums that have a permit. Their collections are invaluable to educators, researchers, students, and artists.
If you were to draw a Venn diagram of Art, nature, and exploration, the intersection of the three is exactly where I like to be. The exploration doesn’t have to be dramatic—and in my case it rarely is—but I love going out and seeing what’s happening outside and trying to capture it in my sketchbook with watercolor and a few words. I’m not looking for grand vistas as much as simple, everyday subjects that mark the changing seasons and comings and goings of creatures that exist in a world of their own. These small things not only ground me, but also make the world larger and more grand. This page illustrates some of my favorite tools of the trade at the intersection of Art and nature.
Tips and Techniques– Painting art supplies or common household objects is valuable practice for capturing different types of textures. This painting presented the challenge of painting plastic, metal, and wood, as well as the texture of the nest and markings on the eggs. In this case, I found that a few simple strokes worked better than lot of fussing. Paying attention to the edges of your subjects is also important. A clean edge is key to the object taking shape.
Hummingbirds continue to be my muse this week, with a focus on living birds, instead of trying to bring dead ones to life (Bringing Hummingbirds to Life). Since these little gems won’t return to the northeast for another two-and-a-half months, I watched a video on Explore.org for reference. I also swapped my usual set of watercolor paints here for gouache, which is an opaque watercolor paint that can be layered light on dark.
Tips and Techniques– I wanted to try gouache without a big investment, so I bought Windsor & Newton’s Primary Color Set (primary red, yellow, and blue, black, and white). This meant lots of color mixing, which was good. I don’t have much experience with gouache, so it took a lot of trial and error to figure out how to get the right consistency, as well as how to use white and black (something I never do with transparent watercolor). Although the new medium tested me, it also stretched my thinking. I’ve started a second hummingbird nest painting and I’m eager to keep learning.
Several days ago, I got an unusual text-message from my son, asking how he might help a stunned Anna’s hummingbird that had struck his dorm window. Based on his description and a photo, it didn’t look good. The tiny jewel likely hit the glass at 30 miles per hour. Indeed, despite his best efforts, the bird died several hours later. Yesterday, I visited the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY, and decided to spend time among the hummingbirds in the collection. They, too, were quite dead…and nearly 150 years old. Despite their tattered appearance, specs of red, purple, gold and green flickered on their iridescent throats and backs. My lesson for the week is that, whether dying or dead, it’s hard to bring hummingbirds to life, but it is certainly worth trying.
Surrounded by greenery even in January, what a treat to find this nest, perfectly sheltered in the crotch of a young white pine. A small grove of new trees has grown up in the unkempt neighboring field—a good find for birds looking for hidden places to raise their young. I like to think of new life hatching last summer when the field was golden and the sun was warmer than it is today.
Tips and Techniques– Try sketching while standing up. I drew this nest in pen while standing in the field and painted it later at home. Standing encourages the use of your entire arm, rather than just the hand and wrist, which helps to keep your sketches loose. Sketching in the cold also encourages you to work quickly and not fuss too much.
My go-to artist materials are watercolor and ink, so I enjoyed switching it up this week by using colored pencils. I started with pears during an artist’s “Sip & Draw” with master botanical illustrator Wendy Hollender. Wendy often starts with a single colored pencil to develop the basic form and values and then applies layers of watercolor and colored pencil to further develop her subjects. You can see some of this process below, where I left some leaves and pears unfinished (click to view larger).
In this second piece, I used a single burnt sienna colored pencil for the entire nest. I started with the inner part of the nest to develop the darkest values and worked my way outward to build the form. I like the ghostly quality that came from blowing out some of the lightest tones.
Tips and Techniques– If you are feeling stuck or looking to expand your repertoire of techniques, try a new artist medium. It may broaden your thinking and your skill set or give you new ideas to incorporate into your artwork.
For the last month, I’ve been watching a robin’s nest that sits on the sill of an eyebrow window at our house. I’ve been able to directly observe everything from four perfect eggs to four pathetic-looking naked chicks to four gaping mouths, begging for their parents to stuff them full of moths and worms. Last Sunday I made this ink sketch, added a bit of color on Monday night, and figured I finish the page later this week. But even when you count your chicks before and after they hatch, it doesn’t mean things will turn out well.
I expected to see four jostling chicks with feathers today and instead found a perfectly empty nest. I checked the calendar, checked my nest records, checked reference books, and checked again. Eleven days…just shy of the 14 to 16 days that it typically takes for nestling robins to fledge. My suspicion is that an owl made off with a nice meal. Although the birds were protected from ground predators, they were otherwise completely exposed, especially as they grew larger and began to overflow the bounds of the nest. It’s an unfortunate fate…unless, of course, you take the owl’s perspective.
Tips: If you are observing nesting birds, it’s a good idea to follow a birding code of conduct to make sure you don’t disturb the birds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch program is a good place to learn and to contribute your findings.
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.
“Don’t go over to the dark side!” warned a fellow watercolor artist when I mentioned wanting to try acrylics. But here I am, wading in. A familiar subject, a new approach. Using acrylics made me appreciate the lightness and delicacy of watercolor and the beauty of drawing that goes with it. But it also made me envious of the ease with which you can rework the paint and blend color on canvas.
Acrylic on gessobord, 8×8″, click to view larger
This painting is dedicated to the Artist Nest Group in Anacortes, Washington, who took risks, experimented, and pushed themselves repeatedly throughout the four-day workshop I taught last month. Rest assured, I won’t be trading my watercolors any time soon, but it’s good to try new things every now and then.