Collecting on Paper

I’m like a kid in a candy store when I step into the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, New York. Thirteen cherry and glass cases house more than 1,200 specimens of birds, 500 mounted mammals, and row upon row of insects, bird eggs, and nests.  The collection is life’s work of a single man: entrepreneur and naturalist Franklin Pember (1841-1924). I love capturing pieces of this collection in my journal—but where to begin is always a challenge.

Pember Museum 2015

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As I wander from case to case, I look for things that strike my interest and add objects to the page throughout the day. Everything is so incredible that it’s hard for me to choose. I started this page with the ruff chick in the lower right, and then added the moths, followed by the eggs, and dragonflies. Except for the ruff, I sketched directly in pen to eliminate fussing and added a layer of watercolor in the museum, before running out of time. Later at home, I finished painting and added the catalogue from 1883 from a photo. It was easier to do the lettering at my desk than standing over a glass case.

In the end, the page is a tribute to a fabulous day spent with one of my favorite collections.

Eastern Pondhawk Dragonfly

Eastern Pondhawk

What a great sighting! A female eastern pondhawk zoomed into view during a dragonfly reconnaissance outing several weeks ago (see “Searching for Dragonflies”). It was my first time seeing one and their green color is truly remarkable. Like many species of dragonflies, male and female pondhawks have different colors and patterns, which make them fun to paint side by side.

For a precise painting like this, I like to do the species at its actual size—in this case, about 1.5 inches each. That makes small brushes essential! I used sizes 3, 1, and 0. It also means that I’ve got to decide how detailed to make the wings. Do I really want to paint every vein? Not so much. At this scale, so many lines might make the wings too busy or make them lose their papery texture. Instead, I like to simply suggest the main wing structure and use layers of watercolor and a little scraping at the final stage to add a sense of light and texture.

Autumn spells the end of dragonfly season in the Northeast, so I’m especially glad this painting took shape before they disappear from ponds and fields. Here’s to next year’s hatch out!

(For another view of dragonflies, see also “Common Darners“)

Searching for Dragonflies


Spreadwing Dragonfly
OK, I admit it…I’m a dragonfly geek. While most people enjoy a boat ride or swim at my mother’s summer cottage, I’m often out rowing around in the hot, mucky backwater shallows in search of dragonflies. Sketching them is a highlight of my summer.

Dragonflies are exceptional flyers, which makes it particularly challenging to identify and sketch them in the field. But, like birds, dragonflies perch for short periods, often returning to the same spot between patrols. Some species perch longer than others and the position in which they perch– horizontal, at an angle, teed up, or straight down—is distinctive for each species…which helps with identification.

I got lucky last weekend when I rowed out in the late day sun in search of dragonflies. A number of Spotted Spreadwings—a new sighting for me– were perched at the water’s edge, hanging from willow leaves or small twigs. Spreadwings are more delicate than other types of dragonflies, and finding one feels like discovering a small jewel in the weedy margins of an August pond.

I also was treated to a fast flyby of a remarkably bright green and black female Eastern Pondhawk. A beauty!