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.
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.
I was already tired of driving when we realized that we left our laptop in our first Airbnb, a two and a half hour trip in the opposite direction from our next destination. The detour meant nearly a full day in the car, including lunch (which, at least, had a view of the sea). Fortunately, we arrived in Cashel just in time to tag onto the last tour of the day at the Rock of Cashel. The growing darkness and slashing rain made the medieval castle with its enormous cathedral ruin feel imposing and empty, but it was the haunting call of jackdaws and rooks echoing off the walls that made the experience all the more extraordinary.
The following day, I managed to sketch Hore Abbey before we set off once again—this time to the small town of Ballaghaderreen in County Roscommon, where my great grandmother was born. Through no trace remains of her house, nor the gravestones of her parents, it was moving to visit the gothic cathedral where her family attended Mass and to see the surrounding town and countryside that she and her siblings left behind forever in the late 1800s.
Tips and Techniques– Sometimes you won’t have time to sketch or paint all of the things you want to while traveling. Take a few photos, but I recommend that you not leave them for long, or you may never get back to painting them. Such was the case for me with the Hall of the Vicars Choral at the Rock of Cashel. I liked the carved angels overlooking the hall, but there was no way to capture them in the dark room and fast moving tour. I snapped a few photos, and began sketching and painting them on the airplane home. I had to give up when I spilled my water during some turbulence, but I was glad I had all the basics in place so I could finish easily at home.
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.
Registration for Arts and Birding 2019 opens in October; the session often fills quickly. Stay tuned here.
Owls are master’s of silence, darkness and shadow, so spotting one is not easy. Painting one is not especially easy either. Still, I wanted to play with the idea of pulling an owl out of shadowy woods using a limited palette of blues and browns– though you’ll see that I added yellow ochre midway through to warm things up. I didn’t set out to paint every detail, but rather to strive for an overall impression. Here’s the finished piece– I took a series of photos along the way to give you a sense how the painting progressed.
I started with a very loose wet-in-wet wash. This stage adds an element of unpredictability to the painting, but also creates some cohesion. As the painting progresses, I’m working background and foreground, adding many subtle washes to develop the forms.
Painted on Arches 140lb paper, 8×10″
Subzero temperatures mean I’m inside, but birds are out in force at our feeders. They start at dawn and come and go or stay all day, eating as much as they can to fuel their survival against the cold. With this abundance of subjects, I have been focused on capturing bird shapes and postures with small, quick ink sketches. The beauty of this exercise is that you don’t invest in any one bird, you are simply training your eyes and hands to work together.
My second focus for the week has been owls, which I have not drawn much before. Barred owls have been calling in the stream-side woods next to our house for weeks. And we caught sight of a great horned owl nabbing a meal (likely a squirrel) near our feeders at dusk. Owls mate in January and February, so I expect to hear more activity in the coming weeks.
Tips and Techniques: I drew the owls from videos, which I tend to like because they convey a bird’s personality and movement better than still photos, yet you can pause and replay if needed. Try drawing directly in ink and not worrying whether you get everything right. Keep your eyes on the bird more than your paper and keep your pen moving. The painted owl is a small study I wanted to try to help me decide whether to do a larger painting. The proportions aren’t quite right, but the negative painting technique worked more or less as I had hoped.
I’ve been watching this robin’s nest on the window ledge of our new house for the last 10 days and every day I’ve wanted to sketch it. I’ve seen the tiny hatchlings go from half naked and barely opening their eyes to spouting feathers to jockeying each other for position in an overcrowded nest. Still, day after day, more pressing chores related to moving here kept me from picking up a pencil. Then this morning, I decided to get off a quick sketch before going to work, lest I miss the chance. I spent about 15 minutes on this, during which time the bird on the right stood up, stretched its wings, and made a flying leap! What a sight! And what a perfect subject for the start of a new journal and the beginning of a new chapter of my life in a new (very old) house in New York State.
Note: I did have a chance to paint newly hatched birds in this same nest in early June. Robins often raise two broods a year and the birds in today’s sketch are from the second brood. Robins incubate their eggs for 12-14 days and the young take about two weeks to fledge. Both males and females care for the young, feeding them worms, moths, and an assortment of other insects.