When art takes a backseat to the rest of my life, I find it helpful to use a grid. Setting up a framework of small squares in my journal allows me the flexibility to fill them as time allows over a period of days or weeks. I started this grid in March, knowing that a hectic schedule lay ahead. This grid started with a set of six squares per page but, as you can see, the squares can be combined vertically or horizontally to fit the subject at hand. I especially like how a grid page can capture so much of a day, week, or month in just a few small spaces.
Tips and Techniques: Set up a grid in pencil with evenly spaced squares and an even amount of white space between them. You don’t have to plan what will go in them. When you have a subject you want to sketch, choose a box and add it. If your subject is quite vertical or horizontal, combine boxes to suit the shape. You can combine as many boxes as you want, or none at all. I tend to skip around the page, based on the shapes, and outline each box at the end.
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.
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.
When I’m pressed for art time, I like to come up with a subject that I can work on in short takes over several days. Such has been the case lately, so I decided to revisit a sketchbook page that I did several years ago. In 2014, I painted a number of chickadees on a single journal page using pencil and watercolor. I’ve always liked that page, so I decided repeat it— this time on toned paper using only a pen and a bit of white colored pencil for highlights. This exercise is a good one for trying to capture different poses and for getting the basics of the bird down without too much fuss.
2014 Chickadee Study
Tips and Techniques– Chickadees are common songsters, but they don’t sit still for long. Practice drawing them quickly from photos and you’ll be better prepared for sketching them from life. Give yourself a time limit; see what you can do in 3 to 5 minutes per bird. Add a few more minutes for shading or finer details if needed. I used toned paper, but you could use drawing paper or watercolor paper with a touch of color for shading and dimension.
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.
As my days in Ireland transitioned from vacation to work, my time for sketching and painting moved to finishing pages and writing notes and impressions. I added color to unfinished sketches; listed birds we saw; recorded our highlights. Yet what struck me most throughout my travels was how open and unpretentious the people I met were. From cab drivers to businesspeople to the President of Ireland himself (yes, I did get to meet him*), people were kind, friendly, and open to making a personal connection. There’s no way to capture that in a sketchbook. Still, that intangible part of traveling stays with you long after towns and countryside and grand vistas fade.
Thanks for coming along for my Ireland adventures. I’m now back to the home front, where the ordinary and extraordinary happenings of my own backyard will once again fill the pages of my sketchbook.
That nice open space at the top of the bird page is begging for a title.
We got most of these answered during our travels…except the song lyrics.
Tips & Techniques- Carving Stone with Watercolor
I loved the artistry of medieval stone cutters and wanted to capture some of it in my sketchbook. I found that using watercolor to carve stone is a fantastic exercise in seeing values. I highly recommend trying it if getting a good range of lights to darks is tricky for you. I used just two colors—ultramarine blue and burnt sienna for the limestone. Picking a simple palette means you won’t get lost in color and will focus only on value to create your sculpture. Here’s what to do: Choose a stone sculpture and render it in pencil. Then put a loose watercolor wash over the entire thing, letting the colors blend on the paper. Let it dry. Next paint medium values using small graded washes. Right away, your painting will start to come to life. Last, add dark areas and shadows. You might need to adjust as you go, making areas darker or putting in a bit of detail, but part of the beauty of this exercise is keeping the relative simplicity of the stone cutter’s original work. (Click to view larger.)
*My travels in Ireland preceded my attending the World Canals Conference in Athlone. President Michael D. Higgins gave the closing address and I was invited to a special reception, representing the Erie Canal and New York State.