Ten weeks of working at home has meant a lot of things, including isolation, quiet, and focus. It has afforded opportunities to more closely observe the unfolding of spring and the comings and goings of birds in and around our property. Every. Single. Day. As you can see from the Bird Map, there’s a lot to watch. We’ve recorded more than fifty different species– some are just passing through, but we see or hear the ones that made the map nearly every day.
There’s a lot of information on this map—too much maybe—but it serves as a useful visual record (click the map to view full size). Bird populations may change from year to year, globally and locally. For example, tree swallows didn’t make this map, though they nested here just last year. They haven’t disappeared, they have simply taken up residence in my neighbor’s nest boxes. Ten years from now, it will be interesting to look back at the Bird Map and see who is calling this place home.
Tips and Techniques– When making a map, I use Google Maps as a reference to get a good aerial perspective. It works whether you are zooming in on a single property or outlining a larger region or country. Begin by sketching a rough outline in pencil and then embellish it with ink or color as you like. Consider whether there are elements that you can add that would lend a unique flavor to the map. The color scheme of the place you are visiting, elements of local art or architecture, indigenous plants or wildlife, or a unique label will help to convey the place you are trying to capture.
NEW ONLINE CLASS!
The Artist Sketchbook, Mondays: July 13,20, 27 and August 3.
I am excited to announce that I will be teaching an online Zoom class through the Winslow Art Center in Bainbridge Island, Washington. Visit the workshops page or head to the Winslow Art Center site for details and registration.
Being at home day after day (after day) is hard. I wear the gravity of our times like added weight. How grateful I am for our only visitors, who sing their way into spring with airy lightness. I leave my sketchbook by the window so I can draw birds at the feeder and take it with me on my post work rambles. So, today, I offer you a few birds from my yard in hopes that, for a brief moment, they might bring you the cheer that they have given me.
(Click to view larger: blue jays, goldfinches, bluebirds, palm warblers)
Tips and Techniques– For me, sketching birds from life feels a bit like entering a spinning jump rope. Even though the birds are moving, you have to jump in at some point and commit a pose to paper. Once I’ve done that, the bird has likely moved. So, I either wait until it strikes a similar pose or use binoculars to see markings in greater detail. Little by little, I add to the bird, paying particular attention to the beak and eye. I find that if you get those right, the rest of the bird, even if unfinished, is more convincing. Once the initial sketch is down, I use photos as reference for additional details. I sketched these with pencil (yes, I erased a lot) and colored pencil, with a bit of watercolor on the jays and bluebirds.
I am excited to share with you that Watercolor Artist Magazine selected one of my journal pages for its Open Book feature in the October issue. Each issue looks inside an artist’s sketchbook and includes one page and a bit of insight from the artist. The October issue is full of terrific articles on plein air and nature painting, so this is an ideal fit. I’m honored to be included!
If I were to ask you to name the top five birds that you see most frequently and to make a list of birds that are your favorites, I suspect that only a few, if any, would make both lists. My favorites tend to be reserved for birds that are especially colorful (rose-breasted grosbeak), tuneful (wood thrush, winter wren), beautiful (American avocet), or that I see infrequently because they are associated with unique places or habitats. This weekend, I had the opportunity to enjoy two birds in that last category during a trip to the Massachusetts coast.
Bobolinks and least terns are rare treats not only because I see them only about once a year, but because populations of both have been in a free fall for the last 50 years. The number of least terns in North America has declined by 88% since the 1960s; bobolinks declined by 66% over the same period. For both, the loss of breeding habitat is the main culprit. Least terns nest on sandy beaches where they compete with beachgoers and encroaching development; bobolinks need large grasslands and undisturbed fields, which are also ripe for housing developments or where mowing takes place before young leave the nest. I was fortunate to see both least terns and bobolinks thanks to the work of conservation agencies and organizations who are working to protect nesting grounds and stem the downward spiral.
More rare treats ahead: I’m heading to the Maine Coast at the end of this week to begin my annual trip to the Hog Island Audubon Camp. There, I’ll teach Arts & Birding and see Atlantic puffins, which have been brought back from local extinction by the work of conservation biologists stationed at Hog Island. I plan to immerse myself fully in the program and the place, so you may not see another post for a few weeks. I promise to make up for it upon my return.
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.