Bringing Hummingbirds to Life

The bird lay dead in my hand, a small and precious jewel given to me by a friend. Fully intact and still dressed in glittering green, it was a rare gift. I’d never held a hummingbird; never studied one so closely. An opportunity like this meant one thing: break out the magnifying glass, ruler, and pencil and get to work.

As an artist, I find observing dead birds enormously helpful when trying to bring them to life on paper. I love the ability to look closely at various features, to study proportions, and to look at feather patterns and feet. A bird in hand lets you see details that a photo and even live birds cannot— like the iridescent feathers on a hummingbird’s throat that appear black unless reflecting light or the length of the primary feathers. As you can see, I didn’t try to enliven my first sketches— these are strictly studies. The birds on the right take flight thanks to the motionless birds on the left (click to view larger).

The Hummingbird Gallery

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About Hummingbirds– Hummingbirds are pretty incredible creatures— they can fly forward, backward, and straight up and down, and buzz around at speeds up to 30 mph. Weighing in at just 3-4 grams, they never-the-less manage to fly more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico each year on their annual migrations from the US and Canada to Central America. There are more than 300 species in the world, twelve in the US, and only one, the ruby-throated hummingbird, in the eastern US. Journey North tracks its annual trek (as well as monarch butterflies and other creatures)…check out the journey.

New Beginnings

This is one of those journal pages that pretty much tells the whole story. I’ve been on a crazy ride in the last few weeks with lots of travels, selling a house, buying a house, and tons of work. But as these pages convey, I’m thrilled to have this new beginning and to be landing closer to family, friends, and work when the transition is complete. I’m also grateful to be moving to a restored historic house with a great basement, new roof, and nesting phoebes and robins. Pages of chaos expected in the weeks ahead!

Tips & Techniques– Try using your basic sketching pens for hand layering. I use a Micron 02 or 005 black pen with archival ink for both sketching and lettering, which saves me carrying around a variety of calligraphy pens and inks. Write your text and then and build up the thickness of the letters to add interest.


What is the value of imperfection? I’ve been mulling over that question as it pertains to artwork for a few years and still, I don’t have a clear answer. I love the work of natural science illustrators, for whom accuracy, precision, and beauty are paramount. Yet each time my own artwork approaches that kind of perfection, it somehow seems to be missing something. Embracing imperfection, which, after all, is what so much of life is about, increasingly appeals to me. Letting go, accepting, and finding beauty are good lessons to learn on any journal page—and these lilies, way past their prime, were the perfect teacher.Lilies

Tips & Techniques– This piece takes advantage of secondary colors—orange, green, and a spot of purple—to create harmony. The strong black of the text, done with a Micron graphic pen, nearly overwhelms the lilies, but also makes a strong statement. I could go back with a thicker black outline on the flowers, but that would likely lead to overkill.

Spreading Magic

‘Tis the season to spread a little magic! If you’ve ever read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Father Christmas Letters, you know what a gem they are. Full of beautiful illustrations and humorous stories, the letters Tolkien wrote to his children from Father Christmas spanned 20 years from 1920 to 1942. Those letters inspired me to pick up Santa’s pen when my children were growing up and, years later, to continue the tradition with letters to my neighbor’s children, now ages nine and seven. I often do a little research on the North Pole to put me in the right frame of mind before writing. A photo of colorful fur boots from Lapland caught my eye this year and sparked the story.

Wishing you a wonder-filled holiday and the chance to spread some magic of your own!

click to view larger

click to view larger

See previous letters here.

The Christmas Letter

Inspired by J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Father Christmas Letters and an antler I found one Christmas Eve, I began writing letters from Santa to my children in 2004. When my sons grew too old for such things, there was a lull in the letters—until three years ago, when I passed on the antler with a letter to my neighbor’s young boys. The letters are among my favorite Christmas traditions and so I am pleased to continue it for another year and to share the fun more widely here with you.
Click to view larger.


The first letter, 2004

2014 Christmas Letter

The letters often include responses to questions asked by the boys in their letters to Santa—in this case, “Do penguins come to the North Pole?”

2015 Christmas Letter

2015 Christmas Letter. Written with a traditional dip pen in Calli waterproof calligraphy ink; watercolor illustrations.

Hand Lettering

Wishing-Joy_Blog2In addition to Wishing you joy this holiday season, I thought I’d do a longer post to answer some frequently-asked questions to this blog on how to improve hand lettering to enhance journals and artwork.

By way of beginning, I should say that I love adding text to my artwork and I’ve been at it a long time. My fascination with letter styles started when I was a kid, making birthday and holiday cards. By about fourth grade, I began to try out different lettering styles and by high school, I started teaching myself calligraphy scripts. Over the years, I’ve practiced illuminated letters, the Palmer Method, and various letter forms. But since you may not want to study the history of alphabets or practice for years, let’s cut to the chase. Here are a couple of ways you can improve the text in your artwork without a lot of study.

My first piece of advice: skip bubble letters! They are meant to be used by children only.


Enhance your own handwriting or printing.
One of the easiest ways to begin is to vary the stroke weight of your own handwriting or printing using a regular pen or pencil. Try this:

  1. Print a word.
  2. Go back over the letters and thicken all the vertical lines.
  3. Fill in the spaces between the lines.

You can leave the letters just like that, or add a “serif.” A serif is a small line at the top or bottom of a letter. Letters without those lines are called “sans serif” (“sans” in French means “without”).

Try a little variation on curved letters. First thicken the downstrokes at 90-degrees. Then try thickening the curves at a slight angle. You can vary the stroke weight on printed or cursive letters. Practice making the letters taller or thicker, or add a little flair.


Use a ruler or straight edge
If you want your letters to look neat on the page, use a straight edge to mark the top and bottom of your letters. If it’s your journal and you don’t want to fuss, skip it.

Add color
You can write your text in any color you want, or outline it in black and then fill the space with color. Colored pencils will give you a lot of control. Watercolor works well too. I use small brushes with fine points when filling letters. You can use two or more colors for variety, floating in the colors so they merge. With practice you can skip the pen and just use watercolor. I layout in pencil first if I’m going to do this so that I have guide marks on the page.


Two examples: combination of basic enhanced printing in black ink with fancier letters done with two- and three-color watercolor lettering.

Calligraphy pens have specially designed nibs that create the thick and thin letters. You can get calligraphy markers or use traditional dip pens with ink. Either way, they take some practice. I prefer pens with ink as the lines are finer and inks more beautiful than markers…but I’ll leave that for another post.

Take some time to play and practice. Look at letters on cards, posters, and advertisements with a critical eye, try out some different styles, and have fun!


Practice page and finished product.

Lettering_YourTurnA few favorite reference books:

  • Speedball Textbook– widely available and has lots of different calligraphy styles, instructions, and samples. A great place to start.
  • The Art of Calligraphy by David Harris- goes through the history of various letter forms, but also includes alphabets, techniques, and samples from historic texts.
  • Illuminated Alphabets by Patricia Carter- techniques, design ideas, and sample alphabets
  • The Bible of Illuminated Letters by Margaret Moran- This small book packs it in! Classic techniques for gilded letters, historic alphabets and information.