A Few Good Books, and Cake

Let’s face it: it’s going to be a long winter. Between the darkness, cold and Covid-19, I figure we’re all going to need a few good books and an extra helping of cake to make it through. So here are my top five book picks for artists, plus a delicious apple-cranberry torte.

Just because you can’t have a party, doesn’t mean you can’t eat cake.

My choices include a mix of artistic styles, from the highly precise to the wildly loose, from urban sketchers to nature journalers, each with a distinct approach that has expanded my skills and pushed me in new directions. If you’re looking for holiday gifts or winter reading, consider these with my highest recommendation:

Artist’s Journal Workshop, Cathy Johnson (2011)
This thoughtful and comprehensive book unlocked the idea of keeping a journal to record my personal journey as an artist. It expanded my subject matter and approach, and ultimately led me to connect with other sketchbook artists and begin this blog. This book is one of Cathy Johnson’s finest—which is saying a lot, since all of her books are terrific. I love that it includes insights and artwork not only from Johnson, but from other artists as well, which provides excellent variety, inspiration, and examples.

Working With Color, Shari Blaukopf (2019)
I’ve been following Shari Blaukopf’s blog for years and this book puts her expertise and artwork close at hand. If you’re not familiar with the Urban Sketching Handbook series, I recommend you seek it out. The series provides practical techniques and lots of examples in a small, handy format. In Working With Color, Blaukopf shares techniques for using watercolor on the go, with special emphasis on color choices and limited palettes. This book is suitable for beginners as well as more advanced watercolor artists. I’m also eager to get a copy of Suhita Shirodkar’s Techniques for Beginners, a new release from the same series.

The Joy of Botanical Drawing, Wendy Hollender (2020)
Precision and beauty are key in botanical illustration and Wendy Hollender’s comprehensive book shows you how it’s done. She primarily uses colored pencils and watercolor pencils to create her masterpieces, but I find all of the underlying techniques she uses to be applicable to working in watercolor. This step-by-step guide to drawing and painting flowers, leaves, fruit, and more spells out how to work with basic shapes, develop values, and build up forms. Rather than leaving you overwhelmed, you’ll feel as though you finally understand the techniques and materials needed for botanical illustration. It takes patience and practice to work this way, but the investment will make you a better artist.

Urban Watercolor Sketching, Felix Scheinberger (2014)
On the other end of the spectrum from Wendy Hollender, Felix Scheinberger’s style is super loose, his color choices bold, his lines wonky and fun. But don’t let that fool you. This guy is also a master of his medium. He provides a concise history of how watercolors are made, explores glazing and wet-in-wet techniques, explains color theory, and encourages you to develop your own style. The book is fun and engaging; I love coming back to it again and again for inspiration.

Explorers’ Sketchbooks, Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert (2016)
I am fascinated by men and women throughout history who journeyed far and wide in search of new places and species and recorded their discoveries in sketchbooks. This book is a collection of excerpts from 70 artist-explorers and includes exquisite sketches and paintings they made in jungles, deserts, forests, and mountaintops. The explorer’s theme of my own book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, is inspired by them. If these men and women could work in the most challenging of conditions, we can certainly step outside, put pencil to paper, and begin a lifetime of discovery.

And a few brief mentions…
If you are looking for books specifically focused on keeping a traditional nature journal, try Roseann Hanson’s Nature Journaling for a Wild Life, Hannah Hinchman’s Little Things in a Big Country, John Muir Laws’ Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, or books by Claire Walker Leslie. All share techniques and tools to get you started and plenty of ideas and artwork to keep you going.

And finallyCake, Maira Kalman
New York City based artist and author Maira Kalman’s books are quirky and fun and Cake is no exception. She’s teamed up with food writer Barbara Scott-Goodman for a delicious book with seventeen illustrated recipes. May I recommend the Flourless Chocolate Torte?


Your turn: What are your must-haves, game changers, or bed rock books?

Decisions, Decisions

A single lime. So simple, yet so many decisions. I had made an artist’s first decision: subject matter, but next came choices about style, composition, materials. I knew that once begun, each line or stroke would narrow some possibilities and open others. More decisions would follow: color, value, precision. At long last, I chose two paths—one botanical, the other more abstract. I worked on both at the same time, alternating between them as paint dried, until finally, I had only one final decision: when to stop.

And now, you decide: which appeals to you more?



Tips and Techniques– I did the botanical lime using a combination of colored pencil and watercolor, building up many layers to tone the lime and achieve subtly in the greens. I used negative painting techniques for the other, using mainly phthalo blue and nickel azo yellow. Both paints are fairly intense, transparent, and staining, so the blue did not overwhelm the yellow, as it might have with weaker yellows. This technique works well when there are layered shapes, so I added the suggestion of leaves, stems, and fruit to give it more dimension.

Tulip Herbarium

A spark of red. Bold color after months of winter. Unfortunately, my poor bouquet of tulips drooped within hours of when I purchased it, and well before I had time to paint it. Alas, the grand wilt gave me the perfect opportunity to create this herbarium page inspired by Wendy Hollender’s wonderful book, Botanical Drawing in Color: A Basic Guide to Mastering Realistic Form and Naturalistic Color (2010). It turns out that Emily Dickinson, too, kept an herbarium. Her poem, numbered 978, conveys the essence of may be missed when you think you have another chance, another day, but don’t.

It bloomed and dropt, a Single Noon—
The Flower—distinct and Red—
I, passing, thought another Noon
Another in its stead…

Tips and Techniques– Precision, accuracy and beauty are the hallmarks of natural science illustration. Botanical illustrators like Wendy Hollender, who works in colored pencil and watercolor, provide great insight into techniques used to make highly accurate renderings. While a journal hardly needs to be so detailed, I find it instructive to paint this way on occasion. I began the tulip with a pencil drawing, followed by a very loose wash of watercolor. From there, I used an increasingly dry brush (sizes 2 and 0) to apply more layers of watercolor. Getting a full range of values from light to dark is essential to making the petals take shape.