I once lived in the shadow of the Helderberg Escarpment—a great sweep of limestone cliffs and slopes that rise west of Albany, New York. I hiked its trails, crawled inside its caves, rode my bike along its base, felt the fierceness of its winter winds, and ate the fruit of farms and orchards that spread out in the valley below. Needless-to-say, I miss it.
This page was inspired by my affection for the Helderberg landscape and a photo taken from a high altitude balloon. The balloon was launched last June by my son’s high school physics class, but due to GPS failure was retrieved only last week when landowners 25 miles away discovered the payload hung up in their woodlot. They contacted the school and reunited students– now in college and quite dispersed themselves– with the results of their grand experiment. And so, a beautiful ending.
It can be hard to find the time for art when life gets busy. A whole painting or even an entire journal page can seem impossible to undertake. So I made a grid on these pages in the hope that I would be able to fill smaller spaces over the course of several days. As it turned out, I drew the entire two-page spread during an hour-long hike, pausing every so often to do a quick sketch when something caught my eye. Done directly in pen, each sketch took no more than a few minutes. I added color and text back at home.
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Some artistic tips:
- Making a grid is a worthwhile exercise, though it did leave me feeling a little boxed in. Make the rules, but feel free to break them, as I did, by going beyond the boxes as you see fit.
- Use the grid to your advantage. I found it especially useful in forcing me to put pen to paper without fussing, but I have seen other artists fill grid squares carefully, to excellent effect.
- Consider having a unified theme that ties the elements together. Your theme may be a particular place, experience, or even experiments with a single sketching medium.
- The risk of a grid is that if one of the elements doesn’t turn out to your liking, the entire page may suffer. That’s fine if you are experimenting and not a perfectionist in your art journal. I like some of the sketches on this page more than others, and I can live with that because my aim was to simply record quick impressions of a particular moment in time.
Page done in Stillman and Birn Zeta journal, with Micron black pen and watercolor at Indian Ladder Farms, New Scotland, NY
Outside: seven degrees, wind chill minus 15F, bright winter sun. Inside the car: warm enough so that I didn’t see my breath, warm enough so that the watercolors didn’t freeze, warm enough to take my gloves off. A temporary win. After weeks of being inside, I was determined to try my hand at painting in the car. It’s less than ideal by any measure, but not without merit. The end result is a little muddy and overworked, but not bad for an hour’s outing on a frigid day.
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I was drawn to the golden orbs of the horsenettle while hiking last week in an old field on the edge of an orchard. Bright spots of yellow against faded, brown grasses and dried wildflowers, I decided to take a stem home to paint. Upon identification, I was not surprised to learn that the plant is invasive and unwanted, as are many plants that grow in the weedy margins of fields.
Still, I love the way the fruit drapes from the tendrilous vines and there is something ironic, yet masterful in a poisonous plant that protects itself with thorns. Once I painted the horsenettle, I wanted to round out the page with other undesirable beauties of fields and orchards. This trio of moths is found in the Northeast: the yellow-necked caterpillar moth is destructive to apple trees, the larval grapeleaf skeletonizer does just as its name implies, and the fall webworm caterpillar, while not particularly damaging, forms unsightly nests on tree limbs.
If donuts don’t immediately strike you as artistic subjects, you’re not alone. I got a few passing glances from the staff of the farm café and bakery when I sat down with my hot cider and bag of donuts and proceeded to paint them. Fortunately, it was an hour from closing time and the café was pretty deserted, so I sat contentedly savoring the quiet moment.
This page illustrates what I like best about keeping an artist journal. Freed from the pressure of making a “finished” piece of artwork, my journal is a place to play and to practice. It’s a place where I learn about all sorts of things, or simply record day-to-day experiences and places. A page of donuts can follow a page of trees or birds or barns…and it’s all good.
Indian Ladder Farms is a much beloved place in our community. Few people I know haven’t picked the farm’s apples in fall, brought their kids to pet baby animals as a rite of spring, or eaten their share of cider donuts over the years. We’ve watched outdoor community theatre under the backdrop of orchard and escarpment, picked out our Christmas trees in winter, and frequented the farm’s gift shop for birthdays and special occasions. Indian Ladder Farms has been in operation since 1915 and it is treasured by generations.
Why I’ve never thought to sketch there escapes me. Maybe it’s that I’m always there for some other purpose, or maybe it’s that I like going when it’s raining and quiet. That changed this week, when I went to Indian Ladder twice—and solely for artistic purposes.
Here are the results of what I hope are many more sketching excursions at the farm. More barns, apples, vistas, and maybe a donut or two are in store.
I wanted practice with perspective and Indian Ladder’s main barns proved a worthy challenge. On my second trip, I focused on the farm’s Flemish giant rabbit. The Flemish giant is a massive breed by any measure, standing about 2 1/2 feet tall, which it does, on occasion, when not bounding around its cage, grooming itself or nibbling at children’s handouts. This was my first time drawing a rabbit and you can see some improvement from left side to right.