Tangled in a thicket at the edge of a wooded wetland, the nest stood out like the prize it was for hiking on a cold winter day. As readers of this blog know by now, finding and painting nests is a recurring theme and a true pleasure for me. In fact, the subject of my first post was a nest. But this one is quite unique—almost two nests combined, it seems to me. It’s possible that a nest begun by one pair of birds was co-opted by another species, as sometimes happens; or that mice took over after the birds were finished and piled an enormous moss blanket on top of the woven base (though I saw no evidence of rodents). Either way, it’s a fine mystery and I’m happy to have it live on inside my sketchbook.
Click to view larger; “In the thin light of winter woods, we find the promise of next summer.”
If you have come across a nest similar to this or have ideas about what birds it may have belonged to, I’d love to hear about it. I can eliminate a lot of possibilities, but I’m stymied. The nest was 7 inches across with a 3 inch cup, constructed 5 feet off the ground at the edge of a wooded wetland in central Connecticut.
A solitary half-dead dogwood and a tangled hedgerow of vines and shrubs is all the landscaping that came with our house when we bought it last September. It’s not much, as they say, but it’s home. And, it turns out, it’s home to a surprising variety of birds as well. They are attracted mainly to the bird feeders we hung from the dogwood, though the shelter of the hedgerow and a neighboring elm provide good cover, too. For the price of sunflower seed and suet cakes, I’m enjoying the show from my kitchen window.
click to view larger
Though my backyard count is just an informal tally, it has been a longstanding tradition to count birds at Christmas time. The nascent Audubon Society began a winter bird census in 1900. Today, Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this long-running census to assess the status of bird populations, and to help guide conservation action. Find out more: www.audubon.org/join-christmas-bird-count
A cold rain is falling on the winter beach. A solitary loon, a few surf scoters, and a flock of bufflehead bob in the steely-gray water, disappearing now and again beneath the waves. This is no day for sketching seabirds. I retreat to the car and drive to a windswept spit of land that divides ocean from tidal marsh. A flock of gulls are right where I had hoped they’d be at the edge of the parking area, facing into the wind, occasionally preening or picking at clams or flying up and settling back down. I crack open my sketchbook in the front seat and draw. Gulls are perfect subjects, striking a variety of poses until the page is filled and I go home for tea.
click to view larger; watercolor in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook
A Victorian glass and cherry cabinet full of nests and eggs, collected in the late-1800s, stretches 15-feet from end to end at the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY. I’ve been going to the museum once a year for the last 10 years and I never tire of that case. The variety of the collection astounds me; I will never exhaust its sketching possibilities. I spent two hours absorbed the details of 125 year old nests before running out of time on my recent visit. If only the birds knew what a legacy they left.
My advice for sketching at a museum: check in upon arrival to introduce yourself and ask whether there are any restrictions. Keep your supplies contained—pencil, pen, and sketchbook with a small set of watercolors or colored pencils work well. Recognize when other museum goers, and especially kids, want to look at what you are observing. If you’re comfortable and people seem interested, invite them to have a look at your artwork. I’ve met a number of aspiring young artists in museums and always enjoy encouraging them.
The Pember Collection- A gallery of sketches dating to 2006 (click to view larger)
Nautilus. colored pencil. 8×10
If you love sketching or photographing birds and nature, want to improve your skills, and have a fun week exploring the beautiful rocky coast of Maine, check out Arts and Birding, a five-day workshop at the Hog Island Audubon Camp, June 11-16, 2017. I am the program director and one of the instructors and I guarantee a great experience! Beginners to advanced participants are welcome—we work in a very collaborative, positive atmosphere. Register by Dec. 20 using the “EARLYBIRD” discount and save $50. Get Details >
The woods are falling silent. Save for the call of jays and crows and the occasional chatter of chickadees and nuthatches, our songbirds have all flown to summer in the southern hemisphere. So, while it may seem odd to be painting yellow warblers in November, I am not quite ready to take up brown and blue paint and focus on winter birds just yet. This painting began in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, where I recently sketched yellow warblers perched in display cases. Back at home, I worked from those studies, a variety of photos, and a previous painting of dogwoods to create this piece…a bit of spring to tide us over the long winter ahead until these little beauties return.
Yellow Warbler (female), watercolor on Fabriano soft press 140lb paper, 6”x8”; click to view larger
Arts & Birding– If you like birds, nature, and art, and are looking for fun workshop to improve your skills in either sketching/painting or photography, join me in Maine next June 11-16 for Arts & Birding. This workshop takes place on a beautiful island on the Maine Coast at the Hog Island Audubon Camp. Registration is open and spaces are filling quickly. This is a wonderful place to invest in yourself and your art!
Many thanks to Discover WordPress for featuring Drawn In this week and thanks to all of you who signed on to follow me! Your enthusiasm, nice comments, and likes are terrific!
In autumn, I like to watch for birds that are migrating south, but I also enjoy the rear-round regulars that visit our yard. With mating out of the way and young fledged, songbirds focus on the singular task of eating to prepare for the long, lean winter. A harvest of flowers gone to seed and fruit on wild vines, supplemented by bird feeders set a welcome table.
Drawing birds takes some practice and a bit of study to familiarize yourself with anatomy, feather groups, and the correct placement of legs and eyes. I spend time drawing birds from mounted museum specimens, study skins, and photographs, as well as from life. For a piece like this, all of those things combine to inform the finished artwork.
I typically start with a light pencil sketch so that I can refine the lines, and then add ink. I like a Micron 005 so that the lines are very fine and I can suggest feathers here and there. Then I paint a loose wash to map out major areas, followed by increasingly detailed layers of color and value. I go from a size 5 or 6 brush at the start and finish with a size 1.
This tree once stood on the shoreline of Hog Island in Maine, with a sweeping view of Muscongus Bay— not a bad place to raise successive generations of young birds. According to the US Forest Service, some 85 species of birds, including owls, woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, flycatchers, and swallows, nest in tree cavities. You might catch a glimpse of birds excavating a tree hole, or coming or going from one, but it’s rare, indeed, to see one from the inside. This old woodpecker hole was cut open after the tree fell, revealing the nest cavity inside. The sketch is much reduced from the real thing. The eggs of various birds that use nest cavities are painted actual size.
Click to view larger.
If you’ve ever tried sketching birds, you know that they are terrible models. Few will stay put for more than a few seconds. As soon as pencil meets paper they’ve struck a new pose. Except for gulls! Head to the coast – or to many vacant parking lots – and gulls will loudly greet you and serve as cooperative subjects. Among my favorites is the raucous laughing gull with its smooth black head. Next to ordinary herring gulls, laughing gulls seem far more distinguished. But all gulls make good models. Next time you’re at the beach, bring a sketchbook along and give gulls a try.
Warming up- Gesture sketches or contour sketches are often done in 10, 20, and 30 second intervals. That’s about all you’ll get for a single gull sketch. But birds often return to similar poses, so you can pick up where you left off.
White on White- White birds on white paper can be a challenge. I’ve added a bit of sky and skim of shadow to give shape to these gulls.
White on Toned Paper- Quick sketches inform longer drawings like this one. Done with pencil and colored pencils on Strathmore 80lb toned tan paper glued into my sketchbook. Toned paper is really great for white subjects like gulls.
Click any of the above sketches to view them larger.
People often ask me, “What happens if you make a mistake in your journal?” Sometimes I live with it, sometimes I work through it until I can correct it, and sometimes, it’s best to start over. That was the case with this page, which started out as a watercolor sketch of mountain laurel trees in a dappled afternoon woodland. I jumped into it without any drawing and never recovered. So I glued an old dictionary page over the laurel to experiment with painting on book paper– something I’ve long wanted to try. This brought an immediate sense of relief and new possibilities.
Click to view larger. Acrylic and ink in Stillman & Birn beta sketchbook collaged with old book paper.
I found a killdeer nesting on the beach two weeks ago and went back to check on it again this week. These robin-sized shorebirds nest right in the open– sometimes at the edge of parking lots or ballfields. The adults sit on the nest for nearly three weeks and when the young hatch they are fluffy and mobile. Once their feathers dry, the chicks totter around after their parents in search of food– a sight I hope to see on my next visit.
A note about painting on book pages: Think of it like working on toned paper. Subjects with strong lights and darks will work really well. The tricky part is that it’s really hard to see pencil or pen lines when there’s a lot of text. Watercolor is my usual medium, but book paper is much too thin for it. Gouache, acrylic, or colored pencil are better suited. Check out artist Alissa Duke’s Exhibition Preview “Can you draw in books?” to see some outstanding examples.
When I was a kid, my grandmother used to play “hide the thimble” with my sisters and me. A variant of hide and seek, she’d hide a thimble or other small object in plain sight and we’d try to find it. The thrill of discovery fueled many rounds of play, until my grandmother’s hiding places (and likely her patience) were exhausted. Lately, I’m playing a similar game with birds. They hide their nests—often in plain sight— in ways that defy detection. Camouflaged eggs and nests and stealth behavior are critical to their strategy. A sharp eye and keen awareness are keys to mine. Still, I walked by this song sparrow nest many times before noticing it, tucked into grass and clover. As you can see, it was a beautiful find.
Song Sparrow Nest, 8×8”, watercolor, 2016. Click to view larger.
The painting was made from a photo, quickly snapped when I found the nest. I prefer painting from life, but leaving the nest undisturbed was critical in this case.