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.
It’s hard to resist Seckel pears in the fall. I don’t mean eating them, so much as drawing and painting them. There’s something lovely about the squat shape and subtle variety of green and gold and red. My instinct was to fill an entire page with pears, but after beginning the first few, I quickly realized that I didn’t have the patience to do ten or twelve. So, four pears on a Saturday morning is all there is.
Tips and Techniques– I did these using a combination of colored pencil and watercolor. I set out to do them entirely in colored pencil, but quickly remembered why I am not a colored pencil artist—it just takes so darn long to shade forms. Although I like the control of colored pencil, I love the speed and luminosity of watercolor, and I’ve come to appreciate what watercolor can do all on its own when you learn to let it go. Still, it’s interesting to combine these two mediums and I recommend trying it just to play with the possibilities.
My go-to artist materials are watercolor and ink, so I enjoyed switching it up this week by using colored pencils. I started with pears during an artist’s “Sip & Draw” with master botanical illustrator Wendy Hollender. Wendy often starts with a single colored pencil to develop the basic form and values and then applies layers of watercolor and colored pencil to further develop her subjects. You can see some of this process below, where I left some leaves and pears unfinished (click to view larger).
In this second piece, I used a single burnt sienna colored pencil for the entire nest. I started with the inner part of the nest to develop the darkest values and worked my way outward to build the form. I like the ghostly quality that came from blowing out some of the lightest tones.
Tips and Techniques– If you are feeling stuck or looking to expand your repertoire of techniques, try a new artist medium. It may broaden your thinking and your skill set or give you new ideas to incorporate into your artwork.
The pages of Birds Worth Knowing, written by Neltje Blanchan and published in 1917 are yellowed and worn. With a classic old book feel and scent, they remind me of cheap paper tablets used by elementary students learning to write. As a scientific historian and nature writer, Blanchan’s work is descriptive and thorough. Still, it sits on my shelf, year after year, untouched. Giving renewed purpose to a page or two seemed fitting.
colored pencil; click to view larger
Tips & Techniques– I like to keep much of my day-to-day work in my artist journal. So when experimenting with different kinds of papers, I typically cut and paste them in. I sliced the pages cleanly out of the bird book with an Exacto knife and trimmed them slightly to fit my Stillman & Birn journal. I used permanent adhesive roller tape to bind the pages—it’s easy to use, clean, and flexible. Archival PVA adhesive also works well and might be best if you’re going to use gouache or acrylic paint on the page. Book pages are not well suited to watercolor.
The hardest thing about drawing on book pages is seeing your initial lines, which get lost in the type and toned paper. I needed to go over a few pencil lines in ink to better define and see them. Subjects that have strong values from white to black work especially well and the possibilities for marrying book text and images are endless. I intentionally left the jay and nest unfinished, as I wanted the page to have a sketchbook quality.
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.
A few years ago I found a great blue heron skeleton revealed under melting snow in a ditch near my house. I don’t know how it met its end, but the bird was almost completely decomposed and I decided to take the skull. As a specimen, it’s fascinating; as reference for painting, it’s quite useful. The colored pencil study here is life sized, based on the 9-inch skull.
I’ve also been doing gesture drawings of herons as a precursor to doing a larger painting. Since the ground here in New York is covered in snow and herons are long gone for the winter, I’ve resorted to the next best option: watching and sketching from nest cam videos. These videos offer a rare view of herons courting, mating, and raising their young. Come spring, you can watch them live, but for now check out the links below if you want a glimpse of these majestic birds.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Heron Highlights 2012
Behind the Scenes- Nest Cam
I recently went to a demonstration by an artist who specializes in charcoal drawings of figures and drapery. Totally not my interest, truth be told, but the elegance of light on dark paper inspired me to try using toned paper. The results surprised me. I liked the simple, back-to-basic quality of working with just dark (in this case, dark umber) and white to render the Eastern phoebe.
Pulling light out of the toned paper felt like such a magical thing. I wanted to see how it would be to bring a mostly white subject to life– hence, the common tern (below, with a plug for my Arts and Birding Workshop in 2015—registration is open!). Again, the simplicity of form and light really appealed to me. Since I usually work in just the opposite way— building up darks with watercolor on white paper— this change of pace is refreshing and fun.
(Prismacolor colored pencils—white and dark grey, with a touch of yellow and red for the bill, on Strathmore Artagain gray paper)