Among the things I love about teaching is getting to know workshop participants. I enjoy helping them learn new techniques and challenge themselves in order to grow as artists. And I love seeing the artwork they produce. But the exchange isn’t just one-way. My students push me to grow, too. This month, I’m teaching a four-week course focused on bird eggs, nests, and feathers, and it’s definitely forcing me to up my game. Here are two recent paintings I did, based on class assignments and with thanks to an exceptionally talented group of “Art of the Bird” participants.
Tips & Techniques– Both of these paintings benefitted from a slow buildup of layers of watercolor. It’s especially important to have a delicate touch with eggs so that they remain translucent. I usually do a lot of experimenting to find the colors I want. For these paintings, I used combinations of raw sienna with phthalo blue as the main duo for the greens. You can see that I also carried raw sienna into the hummingbird nest, while mixing grays with combinations of raw and burnt sienna with cobalt and ultramarine blue. You might find doing a small mixing chart like this a handy reference for comparing color combinations.
A row of trumpet vines stretched along the old wall, forming a thick hedge of green and orange on the side of the road. I love the blossoms’ long tubular shape; a perfect fit for a hummingbird’s slender bill. I didn’t have a lot of time, but how could I pass them up? Like summer and hummingbirds, these blooms are fleeting.
Tips and Techniques– When doing a sketch or painting in my journal, I may only get as far as the drawing or a beginning layer of paint before time runs out. Such was the case with this, and after a week, I’ve only just managed to finish it. Good thing—I have several unfinished pages that are on the verge of going nowhere if I don’t get back to them. Do you find that If you wait too long, you lose interest or momentum, or just move on to something else? Lesson learned: start and finish before the moment gets away from you.
Several days ago, I got an unusual text-message from my son, asking how he might help a stunned Anna’s hummingbird that had struck his dorm window. Based on his description and a photo, it didn’t look good. The tiny jewel likely hit the glass at 30 miles per hour. Indeed, despite his best efforts, the bird died several hours later. Yesterday, I visited the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, NY, and decided to spend time among the hummingbirds in the collection. They, too, were quite dead…and nearly 150 years old. Despite their tattered appearance, specs of red, purple, gold and green flickered on their iridescent throats and backs. My lesson for the week is that, whether dying or dead, it’s hard to bring hummingbirds to life, but it is certainly worth trying.
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
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 Northtracks its annual trek (as well as monarch butterflies and other creatures)…check out the journey.
The lifespan of most small birds is short—just a few years and then they’re gone to predation, disease, or hazards. These birds were given a second life, of sorts, after being “collected” in the 1800s and placed on display at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. During a recent visit I got to see about 500 birds on display—a minute fraction of the 640,000 specimens housed and maintained by the museum, which has the third largest bird collection in the world. How I would love to look behind the scenes! But I was happy enough to sketch these old favorites.