I cracked open a new sketchbook this week: blank pages stared back. Who knows what will become of them? Pieces of life, seasons, artistic experiments, birds, experiences, memories. It seems fitting then that my first page records a journey. These are quick sketches made while driving from Connecticut to Maine, pulled together with text about what I was listening to in the car.
I wasn’t really sure where the pages would go when I began. With each stop along the way, I added something more. Built over time, the page, like the book itself, is record of my journey. Here’s to what lies ahead!
There is something really satisfying about going out with the most basic of sketch tools: paper and pen. I love the flow of lines, of ink on the page, of forms taking shape. These magnificent old beech trees were perfect subjects. I found the first one late Sunday afternoon on the banks of a river and the second two days later in a cemetery. It took me about an hour working on site to make each drawing. Back at home, I couldn’t resist adding a touch of color to to the page. What about you? What are your go-to artist tools?
European Beech (Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, CT), Micron 02 pen in Stillman and Birn beta sketchbook.
European Beech (In Memoriam Cemetery, Wallingford, CT), Micron 02 pen in Stillman and Birn beta sketchbook.
When I am drawing a bird’s nest, I am always mindful that the birds who built it have given me a beautiful beginning. The woven strips of bark, grass, pine needles, twigs and finer nesting materials lend themselves to lovely lines. I love rebuilding the nest on paper, strand by strand, picking out patterns and adding darks until the bird’s creation takes shape again in ink. I plan to add watercolor to this, but I thought I’d share it now to give you a sense of this beginning stage.
Gray Catbird Nest
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.
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The first letter, 2004
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. Written with a traditional dip pen in Calli waterproof calligraphy ink; watercolor illustrations.
It’s very satisfying to grow your own tomatoes. Not just cherry or grape tomatoes, which are fine, but full-sized Brandywines or beefsteaks. While other gardeners have been harvesting their tomatoes for a few weeks, my late-maturing heirlooms are just beginning to ripen. And I suppose that’s good. The slow yield has given me one or two to eat and more on the vine to paint.
This page is a bit of an experiment. I recently bought a new fountain pen—a Lamy Safari—and I tested it with a deep blue-gray waterproof ink from De Atramentis called Fog Gray. The extra-fine pen nib is still much, much thicker than my go-to Micron 02 pen. Although I loved the smooth line, I’m not quite used to the bolder stroke. I found it hard to get much subtlety, especially when shading, which I tend to add in ink before beginning the watercolor. I look forward to more testing!
Yes, this is a completely unseasonal piece given the temperature outside (36F), the snow and barren branches, and the fact that the wood thrush that made this nest is far gone to Central America for the winter. Still, it’s good to remind myself in the year’s darkest days that we are riding on a fantastic, revolving planet– which, after a little more travel around the sun, will bring us to spring once more.
I came upon this sugar maple while hiking at a nature preserve and was quickly drawn in by its spreading lower limbs. Consider what a rare thing it is to see a tree like this. In nurseries and residential yards and farm fields alike, lower branches are commonly lobbed off— for aesthetics or safety or ease of mowing underneath. Grown wild, this beauty’s lower limbs stretch improbably far outward and upward. With most of its leaves already lying in a carpet of orange and brown on the ground, it was easier to see its structure fully and to enjoy the play of light and shadow across its branches. I had less than an hour of sketching time, so I decided to focus on capturing the maple’s form, rather than attempt a full painting. I then added just a touch of watercolor later to suggest the warmth of the late day sun.
1969. Forty-five years ago, an enthusiastic young birder named Scott Stoner found and kept watch over a red-winged blackbird nest in a field near his home. When eggs and parent birds disappeared one mid-June day, he took it. Scott mounted the nest to a piece of cardboard, signed his name, dated it, and put it on display in a nature museum in his basement. He was 12 years old.
Three weeks ago, I found Scott’s nest. It was still mounted to that piece of now-yellowed cardboard, tucked away in a long-forgotten cabinet in an outbuilding at a local nature center. I was drawn to the beauty of the nest, but also to the date it was collected and to the stories it held. After drawing the nest, I decided to track down Scott Stoner.
That’s how I know about the 12-year-old and the basement museum. As it turns out, Scott pursued a career in conservation, donated some of his basement collection to the nature center years ago, and became an expert bird photographer.
Nest to art, artist to collector: how satisfying to come full circle.
This journal entry is a tribute to eager young naturalists. May they find treasures that spark our sense of wonder for years to come.
OK, I admit it…I’m a dragonfly geek. While most people enjoy a boat ride or swim at my mother’s summer cottage, I’m often out rowing around in the hot, mucky backwater shallows in search of dragonflies. Sketching them is a highlight of my summer.
Dragonflies are exceptional flyers, which makes it particularly challenging to identify and sketch them in the field. But, like birds, dragonflies perch for short periods, often returning to the same spot between patrols. Some species perch longer than others and the position in which they perch– horizontal, at an angle, teed up, or straight down—is distinctive for each species…which helps with identification.
I got lucky last weekend when I rowed out in the late day sun in search of dragonflies. A number of Spotted Spreadwings—a new sighting for me– were perched at the water’s edge, hanging from willow leaves or small twigs. Spreadwings are more delicate than other types of dragonflies, and finding one feels like discovering a small jewel in the weedy margins of an August pond.
I also was treated to a fast flyby of a remarkably bright green and black female Eastern Pondhawk. A beauty!
I love the sheer mass of this old cottonwood, towering above younger trees in my neighbor’s abandoned field. Less than a year ago, its hollow trunk still supported most of its aging, weighty limbs. But summer storms recently brought a good portion of the giant to the ground.
At first sight, I was struck by its brokenness in the late day sunlight. Only later, I realized my shortsightedness. Trees, like people, can weather many storms—their character often enhanced by years and trials. Sending greenery skyward, they go on living—aged and scarred, but resilient.
Sketched on location in ink; watercolor wash and text added later.