At Slocum’s River Reserve near Dartmouth, Mass, I found myself drawn to the quiet beauty of the salt marsh on an overcast day— all gold and green, tinged with red. In between land and sea. In between one place and another. There is a silent ebb and flow; life in flux each hour, each day, each season. My time here is a gift at the end of a hectic summer, made possible because I too am in between. This place, painting it, is my own calm between seasons, between moving out and moving in.
Watercolor in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook
For many years now, I’ve clamored over granite ledges, slippery seaweeds, and sharp barnacle-laden rocks to explore the watery realm of Maine’s tide pools. When the sea retreats at low tide, a world of strange and tenacious creatures is revealed. I go in search of spiny urchins, orange and green sea stars, feathery anemone, scampering hermit crabs and slow moving snails, tunicates, blue muscles, dog whelks, sponges, lurking crabs and, always, the unexpected. I bring my sketchbook and a pen and draw until the tide turns.
After this year’s adventure, I went back through my sketchbooks over the last 10 years to compare the drawings and the treasures found. Enjoy!
Though I work outdoors using a portable set of watercolors all the time, I realize that many people work almost exclusively indoors from photographs and a much larger set up. People often ask me how to get started working outside. Figuring out how to lighten the load is key; and once done, it opens all sorts of great possibilities for painting.
Immersed in drawing the tide pools of Maine’s rocky coast.
In preparation for my upcoming workshop, Arts and Birding, in Maine, I have been making a few small watercolor boxes for people to try. Here are a variety I’ve put together or revamped using standard half and full pans:
Clockwise from left:
Windsor and Newton Cotman box, small mint tins in various stages of transformation (inside spray painted white and outside spray painted red), Prang watercolor tin revamped with full and half pans (this is my current box).
Do it yourself:
I ordered the plastic pans online for about .69 cents.They’re held in place with Scotch restickable strips for mounting. Figure about $10 to configure a box of 12, plus paint. I use Windsor and Newton and Daniel Smith tube paints to fill them. To really travel light, I bring just a waterproof pen, a waterbrush, and a couple of paper towels or a bandana to clean the tray and wipe the brush between colors.
(click image to view larger)
What a find! My son and I recently hit the jackpot while exploring the tidal Slocum River on Massachusetts’s southern coast. There in the brackish water, among feeding barnacles and clam siphons protruding from the muddy bottom, we spied them: floating, iridescent, pulsating jellies! At first one, then two, and when our eyes adjusted to deciphering clear bodies in the water column, twenty or more. They ranged from dime-sized to golf-ball sized and we watched them, mesmerized, until hunger sent us in search of lunch.
I later learned that comb jellies are not jellyfish. Though they share some characteristics—like gelatinous bodies made of two major cell layers—these ancient creatures hail from distinct phyla: comb jellies are ctenophores, jellyfish are cnidarians. Comb jellies are propelled through the water not by propulsion, but by the action of thousands of tiny cilia that line their bodies. When light is refracted by the moving cilia it results in a beautiful rainbow of pulsating light.
This journal page is my attempt to capture the experience and also serves as field notes for learning about comb jellies. (Stillman & Birn Beta journal, 5.5×8.5, watercolor, ink, and alcohol to create the textural effect.)
“The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place.” —Rachel Carson, 1955
No visit to the rocky coast of Maine would be complete without exploring and sketching in the watery realm where land meets sea. Here, a fascinating world of plants and animals awaits discovery. Creatures of the Intertidal Zone are uniquely adapted to live both underwater and high and dry for hours each day as the tide rises and falls. Only the most hardy and adaptable survive – and they do it with remarkable tenacity.
Sketching conditions are a little challenging. I typically bring just sketchbook and a single pen (and, if I remember, a magnifying glass, shallow pan, and bandana to dry my hands after poking around in cold saltwater). A long scramble over slippery seaweed and barnacle laden rocks is required to reach the most diverse pools. I work fast, always mindful of the turn of the tide, and sketch species as I find them, building out the page as I go. Later, I add a wash of color. The end result not only captures species found, but records for me each moment of discovery while at the edge of the sea.