For two weeks now, poppies have been opening each day in our garden. Light and airy as ballet dancers, their moment center stage is short, but oh so lovely. I started this page when the first pink flower bloomed and added more as they opened— plant after plant, all pink. And then, a single red blossom opened. Outstanding in its singularity, it seemed the perfect punctuation to a page—and to a garden in need of a bit of diversity to really make it shine.
I did this second painting of poppies while visiting the garden at Olana State Historic Site. These bold, frilly-edged perennial poppies were in full late-day sun, which forced me to work quickly. I like the resulting freshness and fullness of this one.
Tips and Techniques– Notice the treatment of foliage in these two pieces. In the pink annual poppies, I decided to leave out the leaves to to showcase the simple grace of the stems and flowers. In contrast, putting in a suggestion of gray-green foliage offers a useful compliment to the red poppies at Olana. Remember that as an artist, you are also an editor. Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean you have to paint it. Make choices about what’s in front of you to simplify and hone in on what you want to convey.
Walk with the dreamers, the believers, the courageous, the cheerful… This sentiment appealed to me long before the need to stay positive in the face of a global pandemic. But it’s worth rereading and reminding myself, nonetheless, and I hope you find it sound advice too. Usually I don’t have time for illuminated letters and lavish decoration in my journal, but a rainy Sunday seemed like the perfect time to work on something highly detailed.
Tips and Techniques– There are so many beautiful illuminated manuscripts that you can use as reference for elaborate borders and text. Try a quick Internet search for images (“illuminated manuscripts”) and you’ll be lost for hours looking at letters and borders and wondering how anyone ever created such masterpieces by candlelight. I sketched this border in pencil and painted it in gouache. The gold is ink, painted on the page. I wrote the first sentence of text with a stub-nib Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen and the rest with a regular nib. You could use a dip pen, if you prefer. My favorite books for calligraphy:
The Art of Calligraphy, A practical guide to the skills and techniques by David Harris
The Bible of Illuminated Letters by Margaret Morgan
The Speedball Textbook (I have the 22nd edition, but current edition is very similar)
What happens when seven creative women convene over tea and holiday treats? Good conversation, unexpected connections, and artwork centered on china cups that rarely see the light of day. I recently hosted a “sketcher’s tea” to connect with artists living nearby, several of whom I have never met. Everyone brought a sketchbook, teacup, and treats to share. Much like the gathering, I had no idea where this page was headed when I started. But it slowly built, and to my delight, I felt pleased with how both turned out.
A pop of red amidst a tangle of greens, scarlet runner beans wind their way to the top of the garden trellis, sending flowers to the sun and beans drooping toward the ground. Just a few months ago, they were a mere handful of purple and black streaked seeds. Now, they dare you to imagine that they were ever anything other than extraordinary. And so, I think that writer Robert Brault is onto something: If you’ve never experienced the joy of accomplishing more than you can imagine, plant a garden.
(Click to view larger.)
Tips and Techniques: Sometimes, the composition of a piece is sitting right in front of you, and sometimes you have do a bit of rearranging to make it work. I saw the central elements of this piece—the three main dangling beans and the diagonal vine with red flowers on the left side of the page—right on the trellis. But I needed to add flowers, leaves, beans and tendrils from several different runner beans to complete the composition. As an artist, don’t feel that you need to draw exactly (or only) what is in front of you. Give yourself creative latitude to move things around or eliminate something to create a stronger composition.
Warblers: those ever elusive, but much beloved sprites of the tree tops; flitting about, dashing out and then back again, catching insects on the fly or just daring you to find them amidst the greenery. Capturing the yellow warbler on paper proved challenging, too. Perhaps it is because these perky little birds rarely sit still, so making them pose on paper seemed unnatural. Or maybe it’s that paint pales in comparison with the stunningly bright yellow of this warbler in sunshine. Nonetheless, #4 in my perching bird series is complete and, after several weeks of painting birds, I’m planning to turn my attention to other subjects for a while. (Click image to view larger.)
Tips and Techniques– Yellow can be a devilish color! It seems so light, yet, like other colors, there is a whole range of values from light to dark. Shadows on yellow are also tricky. They sometimes appear greenish or purple or gray. It’s easy to get murky laying shadows on yellow in watercolor. My advice when painting yellow (think daffodils, or lemons, or warblers), is to start lighter than you think. Leave the white of the paper for the brightest areas. Do a few washes to deepen values as needed. Experiment with different shadow tones on a separate test sheet– again, you may not need to go too dark to achieve variety and form.
Sketchers place a lot of emphasis on being about to work fast to quickly capture what they are seeing. I work with the same time pressures when working outside or when sketching on the go. However, I find the exact opposite is needed when I sit down to do a detailed painting. Then, there is no substitute for taking my time and working slowly and carefully. Here’s the third painting in my perching bird series. It took me several days of drawing in fits and starts to get the bird’s position the way I wanted it, and then I painted it over the course of a week, stopping to breath, observe, think through color choices, and take things one step at a time.
Tips and Techniques– Here are two images of the American robin in progress. You can see the underlying loose wash on the robin that helps make the colors interesting and lively. The initial wash on the gray back and head is a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. Second washes included more of the same mix, as well as washes of ultramarine with alizarin crimson to create purple tones. The breast began with burnt sienna, but later washes included a mix of aureolin yellow and pyrol scarlet, which gave it a warmer orange color. My choice to paint the word Robin in yellow ochre came after taking a hiatus in order to think through possibilities. I made some color swatches of other contenders before settling on ochre, but I think it makes a perfect complement to the eggs and the bird. (Click to view larger; sorry the image quality isn’t better)
After a successful experiment with perching birds on words, I decided to develop a series of paintings pairing birds with their names. These may make good prints or cards, which I will pursue once I’ve done four to six pieces. Here’s the first two.
Tips and Techniques– If you are going to spend a lot of time creating a finished piece of art, spend time upfront on thumbnail sketches and color choices to work out potential issues before you begin. I mocked up different bird poses and lettering styles before starting these and it was well worth it. Though I had already painted a wren piece in my journal, I switched the posture of the bird on the E several times before settling on the down-facing pose. My first mockup of the swallow with capital letters proved that the word itself was too long. Switching to cursive, tightened the space. I also tinkered with the variations on the letter S and where the bird should perch before figuring out a placement that seemed balanced.
Letterforms and birds are subjects that frequently turn up in my journals. At first, I simply matched bold words with their subjects, but more recently, I’ve tried to get birds to perch on letters. It’s not always easy to do. You’ve got to know a bit about the anatomy of bird feet, and find the right placement to support the bird and balance the page. Here’s a fun one that I did today— the lovely winter wren.
Here are a few sketches and paintings that give a sense of my progression with this over the years.
Tips and Techniques– Don’t shy away from learning to draw birds’ feet. You know you’re guilty if you are prone to hide this part of a bird’s anatomy behind leaves and branches. A simple Google search for “bird feet anatomy” will turn up lots of good diagrams and drawings for you to study and practice. If you have an opportunity to look at bird skins or mounted birds at a nature center or museum, take the time to sketch feet. It’s a sure way to improve your bird art.
After all the hustle and bustle and merriment of Christmas comes a bit of quiet– which always feels just right.
Tips and Techniques– Yesterday, I captured some of my final holiday preparations using a challenge I call “Hour by Hour.” The goal is to sketch something every hour of the day, but each sketch should take no more than three to five minutes. The time limit makes it doable, and although some of the sketches seem random in the moment, the end result really conveys a sense of the day. I sketched everything in pen and then added watercolor as time allowed. This is a fun challenge to try while traveling. I also recommend it if you struggle with what to sketch or with finding time to put pen to paper.
How to prepare for a trip to Ireland? Read guidebooks, re-read my family’s history, purchase a bird field guide and a travel adapter, prepare my conference presentation, pull out warmer clothes, and try to learn simple Celtic knots, fonts, and manuscript flourishes to add to my travel journal. That last bit has been the most fun, of course, but you really do need the patience of a monk to achieve the precision that makes Celtic art forms so beautiful. Here’s the beginning; I’ll fill in the white space during my travels. Watch for more in a few weeks.
Tips and Techniques– A book I really like for learning calligraphy is The Art of Calligraphy, a practical guide to the skills and techniques by David Harris. The title doesn’t quite do the book justice. So much more than a practical manual, it also includes great information on the development of Western script and includes beautiful examples from some of the finest historical texts. The script above is adapted from Insular display capitals and illumination in the Book of Kells, which dates to the 9th century (and which I hope to see in Dublin) and the Lindisfarne Gospels, which date to 698 (located in London).