“Who can imagine my dear country’s dark woods, it’s vast Atlantic bays, it’s thousands of streams, lakes, and magnificent rivers? I wish that I could draw it all.” –John James Audubon
I couldn’t agree more. During my art retreat on Hog Island in Maine I felt like I was hiking in the Cathedral of Nature. I was in awe of the island’s moss-carpeted forests, its milkweed fields alight with monarchs, and its waist-high ferns growing wherever storms had created openings to allow in more light. Osprey circled above the spruce spires, while hermit thrush, northern parula and black-throated green warblers echoed in the shadowy woods. I wished that I could draw it all.
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Tips and Techniques– The greatest challenge to these paintings was undoubtedly mosquitoes. They own the Maine woods and bogs in summer. I stuck to sketching on trails close to the shore and had to skip drawing in the forest interior. The exception I made was to sketch in the bog. There, I worked directly in ink to capture the flowers and a few plants. Then I snapped a couple of photos and retreated to paint later in the comfort of my cabin. Some challenges are worth it.
The Hog Island Audubon Camp has an incredible lab with hundreds of specimens and bird study skins. What makes it extraordinary is that camp participants and staff have access to it all. Drawers of mothball-laden cabinets reveal many treasures: bird eggs, wings, feet, skulls, and whole birds. I love using the collection to study birds up close and to teach Arts and Birding participants about bird anatomy. This year, I chose two birds that are frequently heard but hard to see in the island’s spruce forest—hermit thrush and black throated green warbler—and used a combination of video and study skins to bring them to life on paper.
I also found the remains of a gull skeleton while hiking and made a careful study of the wing bones, which will serve as a useful reference for sketching living birds.
Tips and Techniques– If you want to improve your bird drawings, I highly recommend studying bird anatomy and feather structure, and looking at stuffed specimens or study skins. Many museums and nature centers have collections that you can request permission to look at. You’ll be able to see key features up close and sketch details that you can then incorporate into subsequent bird artwork.
The rocky coast of Maine is a place shaped by granite and water. It is a landscape of quiet salt marshes, tidal bays, dark spruce forests, and hundreds of islands. It’s a place where the cries of seabirds overhead meet the ethereal songs of forest birds hidden in deep shade; and where people have made a living fishing for cod, haddock, lobsters, and shellfish for thousands of years. I have had the privilege of spending the last two weeks there at the Hog Island Audubon Camp, located on a 330-acre island nature preserve near Bremen. I spent the first week teaching and directing a five-day workshop called Arts & Birding; and stayed a second week for an art sabbatical.
“Use what talents you have, the woods would have little music if no birds sang their song except those who sang best.” – Oliver Wilson
It was a pleasure to have such enthusiastic and talented participants for Arts and Birding. Every day brought new adventures: island hikes, boat cruises to see puffins and other seabirds, intertidal exploration, studies of bird anatomy, osprey banding, and sessions focused on drawing, painting and photography skills. A daily salon gave everyone a chance to share their artwork and photographs in a relaxed and supportive setting.
What follows are my sketch-journal pages from Arts and Birding, with brief comments in the captions (click any image to view larger). Watch for subsequent posts from my arts retreat week.
Live action sketching, watercolor added later.
We practiced using a grid with a combination of scenes and closeups to capture a sense of place.
Moving boat, moving birds! Yikes!
Exploring tidal creatures. Thankfully, they don’t move as quickly as birds.
It’s a treat to eat dessert every night!
I like to give daily sketch prompts to provide additional challenges. Here’s my favorite: do one sketch every hour that takes no more than 5 minutes.
If this tempts you to attend Arts & Birding or other workshops at Hog Island in 2020, mark your calendar now! Arts & Birding is tentatively scheduled for July 19-24 (registration opens October 21, 2019).
Imagine a week on an island off the coast of Maine. No cars, no stores, no streetlights…just good company, good food, starry skies, blue horizons, and long days spent almost entirely outside. These are the essentials for Arts and Birding, a week-long program I facilitate each year at the Hog Island Audubon Camp. Because I’m teaching, I don’t have time to complete much artwork of my own, but I did manage a few pages. And as always, I came away inspired to keep observing, sketching, and sharing my work with the wider world.
Notes:(Clockwise from top) It’s not all birds! We also explore and sketch coastal scenes, plants, and life in the watery realm between high and low tide; Hog Island has a great collection of bird specimens, including a drawer of bird eggs; Young osprey nesting on the island are banded by wildlife biologists each year. It makes for fast sketching, but it’s a thrill to see these birds up close; Just the essentials for a week of Arts and Birding.
Arts and Birding is open for both sketchers/painters and photographers. Here’s a few photos from the week taken by photography staff and participants.
Registration for Arts and Birding 2019 opens in October; the session often fills quickly. Stay tuned here.
How do you capture a day? In hours? In moments? The premise of the Hour by Hour sketch challenge is to put pen to paper every hour of a single day on one journal page, with no sketch taking more than five minutes. I introduced this challenge during a week of teaching at the Hog Island Audubon Camp, where the days are busy and intense. The challenge forces you to work fast and loose, while helping you capture small things that together convey a sense of the day. It’s a good challenge to try when traveling or when you are too busy to take time for a longer sketch. But it’s also a worthwhile exercise if you want to practice being less fussy with your sketching.
I did these 1-5 minute sketches with a Micron 02 pen and added watercolor later to finish the page.
On my recent boat excursion to Eastern Egg Rock in Maine, both luck and good timing were on my side. There, on this small, rocky island where puffins and terns nest, several razorbills sat on shore in full view. I have always wanted to see these sleek black and white puffin relatives, but because they breed on rocky cliffs in northeastern Canada, they are mostly spotted in winter or when migrating. The razorbill sighting alone would have made for a great day on the water, when we spied a common murre—another bird in the auk family that I had never seen—swimming nearby. Moments later, a fantastic northern gannet careened overhead, circled twice, and flew off out of view. The triple header made watching puffins seem almost ordinary. And, as you can see from my sketch, the poor black guillemot, the most common auk species in Maine, didn’t even make the page.
Downeast Maine is known its rocky coast line, cold waters, abundant lobsters, and maritime heritage. Enter any tourist shop and you’ll also see key chains, mugs, and bags decorated with the colorful Atlantic puffin, which breeds on a handful of offshore islands. The fact that puffins are so well associated with the Maine coast is thanks to the dreams and persistence of ornithologist Dr. Steven Kress. With backing from the National Audubon Society and help from a cadre of student interns, Kress has been restoring puffins to the Maine coast since the 1980s. Absent for more than a century due to extensive hunting and predation, puffins are once again breeding in Maine. (Visit Project Puffin to learn more.)
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The Hog Island Audubon Camp is home base for Project Puffin. During Arts and Birding, the week long workshop that I direct at Hog Island, we take participants to see the puffin nesting colony on Eastern Egg Rock, a small island at the outer edge of Muscongus Bay. From the boat, we photograph, sketch, and delight in watching these “clowns of the sea,” along with a host of other seabirds. Though I made some quick sketches from the boat (a first—thanks to extremely calm seas), I did this page back on land. Three cheers for puffins, seabird restoration, and a week in Maine!
Tips & Techniques– Throw out the black paint in your watercolor set. Instead, try combinations of blue and brown to mix a more interesting dark. Ultramarine blue and burnt sienna, or indigo (which contains some black pigment) and burnt umber produce rich results.